|The frozen Neva river|
Last year I was lucky enough to visit St Petersburg and was completely entranced by this majestic city. There is a remarkable contrast between the beautiful architecture at its centre and the harsh and bleak weather conditions. It is a city with such a rich history and such an imposing atmosphere that you just know that every street corner you turn and every block of stone in the pavement has a wealth of stories to tell - not just the stories that fill the history books, but the undocumented tales of centuries of ordinary inhabitants.
City of Thieves is one of those stories. It opens with David, an American writer, asking his grandfather about what he did in the war. City of Thieves is the narrative that follows. Lev, a 17-year-old chess fan, is arrested in the dead of night for looting the body of a German paratrooper. On the same night, Kolya, a soldier, is caught and arrested for deserting his colleagues. Their execution seems inevitable, but the next morning they are taken before the colonel and granted a bizarre opportunity - if they can find him a dozen eggs for his daughter's wedding cake, he will reward them with their lives.
The desperate quest for some 'Holy Grail' type item is a theme that has been covered in literature countless times before. I have seldom seen it done quite as well as here, though. The use of eggs is an inspired choice. The fact that finding such a commonplace ingredient seems like an unsurmountable task emphasises the hardship & utter deprivation of the time. Furthermore, the fact that the eggs are needed for something as frivolous as a large wedding cake provides a further stark contrast with Lev and Kolya's own desolate circumstances, which is really clever. And to top it all off - what is more delicate, more easily destroyed than the fragile shell of an egg? So you see at the beginning of the book their assignment seems nigh on impossible to complete, but the loveable characters and their warm friendship have the reader inwardly urging them to succeed.
I must say that the first chapter had me convinced that this was a true story (not least due to the fact that Lev's surname is Beniov) and I was initially a teensy bit disappointed to find out that's not the case. I didn't see the point in including that introductory scene at all. After some consideration, though, I've decided I really like it - because even though this particular story may not be based in fact, the fact that it potentially could be is amazing. How many other people out there across the world have got grandparents, neighbours, an elderly local shopkeeper with a story like this waiting to be told? For that generation, war was often something not to be spoken about, to be pushed to the back of the mind while you got on with the rest of your life. So it wouldn't surprise me if there are many real life people out there who share Lev's reticence.
I don't know what more to say other than that I can't think of anyone I wouldn't recommend this book to! It has everything - adventure, romance, great characters, warm friendships, danger...a real gem.
I am more than aware that this blog post has been a long time coming - night shifts and illness have thwarted my attempts to write reviews - but hopefully I shall be more organised from here on and have a few posts on the way this week!