Note 1: This book is reviewed by my husband Jim.
Note 2: Caution! Some spoilers in this review.
This is not the ultimate coming of age novel, but it is a coming of age story in ultimate circumstances — Leningrad in 1942, which at that time was under siege by the Nazis, experienced frequent bombardment, had little or no food, and was under oppressive surveillance by the NKVD. [The NKVD was the name for the Soviet Secret Police before it was changed to the KGB.]
“The Siege of Leningrad” began in September, 1941. When German forces reached Leningrad, Hitler demanded that the city be cut off from food and supplies and razed to the ground. For almost 900 days, the Germans laid siege to the city as hundreds of thousands of residents died.
The protagonist, 17-year-old Lev Beniov, is a diffident, colorless boy who is arrested for curfew violation and theft of government property (a capital offense in 1942 Leningrad). While in prison he comes under the influence of a crafty accused deserter (Kolya) who becomes his best friend. Improbably, Lev and Kolya are released by an NKVD colonel who wants them to find eggs for his daughter’s wedding cake.
Stealing eggs during the Siege of Leningrad turns out to more than a simple search for hens. The boys must penetrate the Nazi lines, for there is no food to be found in the Russian countryside. In the process, Lev meets an NKVD sniper (Vika) who later becomes his wife; is captured and nearly executed; participates in a bizarre chess game for his life; kills two Germans (including an Einsatzgruppe colonel) with a knife; and sees Kolya killed by friendly fire. Coming of age was eventful on the Eastern Front.
The book is well written, fast paced, and loaded with irony. Lev is captured by the NKVD only because he stops to help one of his friends (a girl on whom he has a crush, but who hardly notices him) climb a fence. He goes to prison on the night his apartment building (where the girl lives) is destroyed in a Nazi bombardment. Kolya talks his way out of numerous impossible situations only to be shot by Russian troops when he tries to return to Leningrad. Lev overcomes insuperable obstacles to obtain a dozen eggs for the wedding cake, only to learn that an airlift of supplies has just gotten through, and the NKVD colonel already has three dozen eggs for the cake.
The narrator and principal character, Lev, is complex and vulnerable. The two colonels (Nazi and NKVD) are minatory, but have wry senses of humor. Kolya and Vika are a little too competent to be believable, but will make popular characters in the inevitable screen play.
The setting for the narration of the book is artfully contrived. In the unnumbered preface, the author (David Benioff) asks his grandfather (Lev Beniov) to tell him about Leningrad during the war. Grandfather agrees to talk, but forgets the details. The author prods him to remember because “a couple of things don’t make sense.” Grandfather retorts, “You’re a writer. Make it up.”
Published by Viking / Penguin, 2008