Thursday, January 28, 2016
Review: Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
Author: Ruta Sepetys
Publication Date: 04 February 2016
Buy: Amazon | The Book Depository | Dymocks Australia
I received this book from Puffin for review.
It's early 1945 and a group of people trek across Germany, bound together by their desperation to reach the ship that can take them away from the war-ravaged land. Four young people, each haunted by their own dark secret, narrate their unforgettable stories. Fans of The Book Thief or Helen Dunmore's The Siege will be totally absorbed.
This inspirational novel is based on a true story from the Second World War. When the German ship the Wilhelm Gustloff was sunk in port in early 1945 it had over 9000 civilian refugees, including children, on board. Nearly all were drowned. Ruta Sepetys, acclaimed author of Between Shades of Grey, brilliantly imagines their story. (summary from Goodreads)
Salt to the Sea is a stark portrayal of the desperation of war.
Having never read any of Sepetys's books I wasn't too sure what exactly to expect of Salt to the Sea, though from rave reviews of her earlier works I figured it might be something great and that was certainly right. Sepetys's storytelling is striking and poignant, illustrating the horror and tragedy of war without being overtly graphic or violent. Salt to the Sea is by no means action packed but alternating between four point of views it's very fast paced and makes for a quick read. I read it in one sitting, easy. Each chapter is quite short and switching from one character's point of view to another as it does keeps the narrative very succinct. I think this helps set the tone of the overall story; it's stark and haunting. A certain intensity can be expected from any story portraying the brutality and fear of war, and Sepetys has it in heart-wrenching spades. We're thrown right into the thick of it and as we're getting our bearings a constant thread of worry forms and never quite dissipates. This meant I was enthralled from start to finish. I was disappointed slightly with the ending, however. We go from point A to B with no explanation, and so I didn't get the closure I would have liked, especially in terms of Johana and Florian's families. Apparently Salt to the Sea is a sort of companion to Between Shades of Grey though, so if I had read Sepetys's earlier works I maybe wouldn't have felt this way. That last chapter though. Wow. What a way to end the book. It was unexpected, and while I'd held up fairly well throughout Salt to the Sea, that last sentence wrecked me. I just broke down crying, and it was both happy and sad.
I think it's hard not to be affected by Sepetys's characters. We're getting to know them in the worst of times, at their most desperate. There's an honesty that is touching. Each has a different background, has experienced and been affected by the war in a different way and has their own secrets. Despite this they find their way to each other and it is beautiful. At least, it is in terms of Johana, Florian, Emilia and their fellow refugees, Poet, Klaus, Eva and Ingrid. Johana, Florian and Emilia are three of the four narrators and their strength and determination is inspiring; their pain terrible. The bonds they form are what drive Salt to the Sea. It's hopeful and heartbreaking all at once. I especially loved Poet and Klaus. Their spirit is uplifting. The fourth narrator is Alfred, a low ranking officer in the Nazi regime with delusions of grandeur. His point of view chapters are not so inspiring, but no less impacting. Alfred is, in a word, creepy. His narration oozes slime but at the same time, it offered a different perspective of what this war meant to and did to people. I appreciate Sepetys's intent. It's easy, reading Salt to the Sea, to believe, to know, that these things were likely to have happened for real, to actual people just like Sepetys's characters. What happened to the Wilhelm Gustloff is true for example, something I was never aware of. This thought is never far from my mind when reading historical fiction like this and it always means the emotion of the story hits me that much harder. Especially considering things like this are occurring even today.
Everyone needs to read Salt to the Sea. We need to be affected by stories like this.