A meatier read this summer!
The first was City of Thieves by David Benioff and is a story told amid unimaginable hardship suffered by the people of Leningrad during the infamous Nazi siege lasting an incredible 900 days between1941-44.
It’s a unique tale which follows the growing friendship of an overly confident yet instantly charming deserter named Koyla, and Lev Beniov, a young boy left fending for himself once his mother and sister fled the city, with his father already dead. A strange encounter in a prison cell leads to an even more bizarre mission whereby the unlikely duo are assigned to bring back a dozen eggs needed to grant a Soviet colonel’s daughter’s wish for a wedding cake. If they succeed, their lives will be spared. Bearing in mind that the whole city is on the brink of starvation and has been reduced to such extremities as murder and cannibalism in order to survive, this is no mean feat to say the least.
The series of adventures that prevail are at times hopelessly savage and sickening, but the relationship which unfolds between Koyla and Lev provides a neutralizing balance of heart-warming humour and humanity. Lev’s almost mute sullenness and awkward self-awareness is the perfect antidote to Koyla’s charismatic brashness, not to mention his constant bragging. Yet, as their dual quest becomes not only a test of unimaginable endurance but also a test of absolute trust and survival, a brotherly bond develops to witness two young boys propelled to manhood faster than they could ever have wished.
My second choice also takes a World War 2 setting but this time a little further west in a small German town near Munich. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is an enchanting tale of an illiterate young orphan girl named Liesel, who is taken in by foster parents just as Europe is on the brink of war. The story is narrated by the ominous figure of Death itself, whose own task of carrying helpless souls to their inevitable fate during 6 years of hideous torture and mass murder permeates the real narrative of Liesel and her secret book obsession.
Taught to read by her compassionate foster father, a nighttime activity to while away the hours of fearful sleeplessness, Liesel develops an understandable comfort in the presence of literature. With very little reading material available, she seizes any opportunity to get her hands on the priceless possession of a new book. Admirable opportunism, however, turns to brazen theft when she starts stealing from the Mayor’s wife’s library, the woman who had initially encouraged Liesel’s book curiosity but who subsequently evoked the young girl’s rage after disposing of her mother’s washing services leaving her unemployed.
Throughout Liesel’s time with her foster family in Himmel Street she forms some amazingly tender relationships, not least with the man she now calls Papa, whose unquestionable love and kindness is in much needed demand to offset the sharp-tongued wrath of her foster mother. The bond she develops with Rudy, the neighbour’s son, is the epitome of childhood friendship with all the bittersweet ingredients of an unrequited love thrown in.
But the most intriguing relationship is formed from the depths of Liesel’s cellar where the family are riskily hiding a young Jewish man, the result of an old promise made by Liesel’s papa. Both abandoned, frightened, and sharing a love of words the two outcasts build an almost unspoken sense of trust which bares witness to unspeakable horrors but remains innocent and true to the very end.
Zusak’s tale is delicately told in such a way that while the despicable war crimes inflicted by the Nazi’s are by no means diminished, the overwhelming triumph of the human spirit is believed to prevail. Not only unique in its narration, the matter-of-fact tone presented by Death does not allow for a sentimental view, The Book Thief provides yet another memorable insight into a period of history which, in my opinion, should never be forgotten.