A few years ago, in the tiny bookshop I previously worked at, a customer asked for a recommendation. It was crowded that evening, lots of people milling around perusing the shelves. After listening to what he liked to read, I asked if he’d read City of Thieves, by David Benioff. He shook his head.
“My grandfather, the knife fighter, killed two Germans before he was eighteen. I don’t remember anyone telling me- it was something I always seemed to know, the way I knew the Yankees wore pinstripes for home games and gray for the road.”
As I came to the “Yankees” part, I realized with embarrassment that the entire store had suddenly grown silent, that my conversation with one person had become one with many. That night we sold every copy of City of Thieves we had.
Though published in 2006, it still can be found on the shelves of any good bookstore. Mention it to any bookseller and you will undoubtedly be rewarded with a broad smile, for it is truly a gem of a tale. Eight years after it’s release, it remains on the “employee picks” wall at Vromans.
Set in Leningrad during World War II when the Germans lay siege to the city, it is a story of friendship, of an impossible task, of war, survival, courage and love. It is about being seventeen, thoughts about the mystery of girls crowding thoughts of a growling stomach. It is a coming of age story during a time of madness and despair.
Poignant moments are peppered with those of horror, as we follow young Lev Beniov, and his cellmate, the not much older, dashing and charismatic, soldier Kolya. Both boys are tasked with finding and bringing back a dozen eggs for the wedding cake of a colonels’ daughter. Their freedom and their lives depend on being successful. So begins their friendship and story, which takes place over five days, affecting their lives forever.
City of Thieves defies genre pigeon holing. It has moments of levity and moments of sadness, of cowardliness and of bravery. It appeals to all ages, men and women, boys and girls- though I would not recommend it for readers younger than high school age due to some gritty content.
I have yet to meet a reader who was not deeply touched by it. Get a copy for yourself and one for your teen- age grandchild. There’ll be so much to talk about, their mobile phones may actually stay in their pockets.