reviewed By Ro Bennett on 5th august for recorded bookshow
My youngest son, Daniel suggested I read this book. I studied the Holocaust at University, so tend not to read anything about war and its cruelty and deprivation anymore. This book is pretty grim but it is a gripping page turner and has elements of humour and feel good aspects which make it more bearable. I thought it was based on a true story, but apparently in a conversation Penguin books had with the author, he said that it is a work of pure fiction. David Benioff said that he did end up reading dozens of books on the Siege of Leningrad, mainly The Nine Hundred Days by Harrison Salisbury who was the first Western journalist to have access to Leningrad once the siege was lifted. Mr Harrison spoke first hand with hundreds of Russians who survived the siege, and he collected as many diaries, journals, and letters as he could. Therefore, City of Thieves has an authentic touch.
The story begins when a writer visits his retired grandparents in Florida to document their experience during the infamous siege of Leningrad. His grandmother won't talk about it, but his grandfather realises it is something his grandson needs to know about. So he talks mainly about two weeks in the beginning of 1942, when two young men embark an impossible mission, trying to survive against desperate odds.
Lev Beniov is a Jewish lad whose father, a poet, has been ‘disappeared’ by the authorities because of his controversial writing. Before the war, eleven hundred people lived in the Kirov. By New Year’s Eve, the number was closer to four hundred. Lev’s mother and sister fled to Vyasma to stay with an uncle, before the Germans closed the circle and besieged the city. She begged Lev to go too, but he refused. He wants to stay to defend the city. Too young for the army, Lev spends his nights working as a volunteer firefighter with friends from his building. When a dead German paratrooper lands in his street, Lev is caught looting the body and is dragged off to jail. He shares his cell with Kolya, a handsome young soldier arrested on desertion charges. Dawn brings, instead of an execution squad, an impossible challenge. Lev and Kolya can find a dozen eggs for an NKVD colonel to use for his daughter's wedding cake, and live - or, since their vital ration books are confiscated, if they fail in their attempt, they will die.
In the depths of the coldest winter in history, through a city cut off from all supplies and suffering appalling deprivation, man and boy embark on an absurd hunt. Their search will take them through desolate, lawless Leningrad and the devastated countryside surrounding it. They encounter dangerous people even more desperate than themselves. Eventually, they have to leave the city and venture into the German-occupied countryside, where they get caught up with a band of partisans intent on killing the commander of an Einsatzgruppen.
It’s a nerve wracking book and you never know the fate of some of the characters which is what happens in war. It was a well written and memorable book and well worth reading. But it will haunt you