Book: Between Shades of Grey
Author: Ruta Sepetys
First off, I would like to say that this book bears no connection to Fifty Shades of Grey, since the title could be somewhat misleading, I would never read that Shades of Grey. When I started this book, I really needed something to lift me out of the three star funk that I’ve been in since finishing Heir of Fire a few months ago, it’s hard to be excited about reading when you’ve had a long string of mediocre books! Thankfully Between Shades of Grey was exactly what I needed it to be, a relatively quick (it took me three weeks, which may not be quick by most standards but given that I’ve had exams and only finished them last week, I’m pretty pleased) and enjoyable (in the sense that I liked reading it, not in the sense that the subject matter is enjoyable) read. I wouldn’t call it an easy read, the subject matter is extremely harrowing, but it is an informative (the author has clearly done her research) and interesting book to read.
I originally picked up this book because of the subject matter, since I do love a good historical fiction book and I’ve been studying Russia as part of my A2 course this year, so the premise of this book immediately interested me and I’m not that familiar with this part of WWII, so I was excited to learn about the experiences of deportees from Russia. I was familiar with the horrors that people experienced under Stalin, at least to the Russian people, but I wasn’t really aware of the extent that the people of the Baltic States suffered under Stalin until reading this book, and it was really eye opening. The amount of compassion that Sepetys feels for the very real people who inspired the events of this book is clear through her writing, and the subject is dealt with in a very sympathetic and sensitive way. It’s impossible to forget that the story was inspired by real people, because all of the characters feel so real, I really connected to Lina and her family as well as the other characters, they do feel like they could be real people. I liked that the chapters were generally quite short, and it felt like the story flowed really well, there weren’t any jerky bits, or bits that didn’t quite make sense, or any jumping around, in fact it didn’t really feel like it was broken into chapters at all, it just felt like one continuous story and probably would be easy to read in one sitting. Sepetys’ writing is beautiful, the descriptions of the places and people in the book were so vivid it made me feel like I was really there, sometimes I even feel like the descriptions were a little too vivid especially when it came to some of the atrocities that were committed by the NKVD, it made me feel a little sick at times, but that’s really not a complaint as such, I wasn’t expecting this to be an easy read and the vivid descriptions of the atrocities committed towards these people really helps you feel for them and hammers home the point that this is not just a story, people really experienced this. I find that very few books make me cry, it’s not that I don’t feel sad, it’s just that I don’t tend to physically cry, but I did when reading this book. I liked that her style of writing wasn’t too elaborate, the simplicity of the writing was perfect for this book.
I loved the characters, like I said before, they all felt so real to me, it’s like they could have stepped off the page. I loved Lina, she had flaws, she tended to get angry easily, she was headstrong but these flaws made her seem all the more real to me and I love that she really felt like a teenage girl, as sometimes when authors write with a teenage voice, the character can sound much older or younger than intended but Lina really felt her age. She was so incredibly strong and brave and I couldn’t help but like her and feel empathy for her situation. I loved the inclusions of flashbacks of her life before deportation, it made for a really great contrast between her life before and her life now. I loved Lina’s mother, who provided a source of hope for everyone and was willing to give up her own rations to ensure that other people survived, it seemed that there was no end to her kindness even in such a horrific situation. She was so good to her children and managed to remain elegant and dignified even in the awful circumstances, and I think of all the characters, she was the most noble. Lina’s brother Jonas really grows up over the course of the story, he starts out as a little boy, but by the end, he acts far beyond his years. I especially felt for Mrs Arvydas, who was forced to prostitute herself to the NKVD in order to save her son (Andrius) and was alienated from all the other deportees because of it, that was really sad. Each of the cast of characters had something different to offer and I liked that. I found that the book really made you think about how far you would go, how much you would sacrifice for the people that you love. I liked that even though the characters went through so much, the theme of hope ran all the way through the book, that these characters were strong and they were not going to give up until they were back in Lithuania. The strength of human spirit is the one thing that this book highlights the most and I found it really inspiring.
I felt like Andrius was maybe a little under-utilized, he was a brave, strong, compassionate character and I would have liked to have seen a little more of him. I liked his and Lina’s romance, there was just enough of it for relief from some of the darker elements of the story, but not so much that it overpowered the story and it felt like a believable teenage romance.
Kretzky really surprised me, initially he just seemed like another NKVD officer who hated all of the deportees, but I guess my judgement of him was clouded because we only saw him through Lina’s POV and she hated him. When his true nature was revealed, I was really surprised and felt quite bad for him and was amazed by what he did at the end.
Books like this really make you feel appreciative of what you have, who are we to be complaining about mundane little things that go wrong in our lives, when the Baltic people suffered through this? This book definitely made me feel lucky for what I have.
I did find it a little strange that there were no Lithuanian words used in the book, there are several Russian words and it wasn’t always clear when they were meant to be speaking Russian and when they were speaking Lithuanian, so a little use of the Lithuanian language may have made the distinction more clear.
Lina is an artist, so she talks a lot about art, and while I appreciated that she was artistically talented and liked that she used her art as a way of dealing with what was happening to her, the stuff about Munch and his work kind of went over my head since I am not artistically inclined in any way.
There is not exactly much in the way of plot, so to speak, the book kind of reads as more of an account of Lina’s family’s time in captivity, but strangely enough this didn’t bother me much (especially considering that I am usually a very plot driven reader), because the writing was so beautiful and the characters so well drawn that those things carried me through the story.
The one major quibble I have about this book, is that the ending seemed rather abrupt. I wasn’t really prepared for the book to end when it did and it didn’t seem to have come to a natural end. The book just kind of finishes and then we are given an epilogue, which is all well and good but it doesn’t really answer many of the questions that are left unanswered at the end of the book. I feel like it could have done with a couple more chapters, just so things were satisfactorily resolved.
Overall, I would recommend this book. I’m not going to say it’s the most fantastic book ever, there are flaws, but this is Ruta Sepetys’ debut novel and for a debut, it is very strong indeed. It’s not an easy read, by any means, but I feel like this is a story that needed to be told, we all know about the atrocities committed by the Nazis but I would imagine that the Baltic genocide by the Soviets is fairly unknown and I found this book really eye-opening and informative as to what it may have been like for these people who were deported by the soviets during the war and suffered so greatly. If you like historical fiction, then please read this book. You won’t regret it!
My Rating: 4/5
The next book I will be reviewing is Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall, the second book on my summer reading list. I’ve heard some good things about this, so I’m hoping I’ll enjoy it!