Author: Ruta Sepetys
Two years ago, I read Ruta Sepetys’ debut novel, Between Shades of Grey, which I completely fell in love with, it was one of my favourite books I read that year (which is saying something because I had a huge slump that year and found most of the things that I read pretty meh), so when I found about this book last year I was dying to read it. This of course meant that I bought it, it sat on my shelf for a year and then I finally got around to reading it this year for my #RockMyTBR challenge (#bookwormproblems). I love how Sepetys takes lesser known historical events and uses them in her books, as a history student, I love getting to learn about stuff that I haven’t heard of before. There were more people who died on the Wilhelm Gustloff than Titanic and yet we haven’t heard of it, it just blows my mind. It was a little slow to get to the actual shipwreck portion of the book, most of the book is buildup, but luckily the chapters are pretty short, so it was a relatively quick read. I wouldn’t say I loved it as much as Between Shades of Grey, I think Between Shades of Grey was a much more intimate story than Salt To The Sea, because it’s purely from Lina’s point of view and you really get to connect with her and her family, whereas Salt To The Sea has multiple narrators and the chapters are so short that you don’t quite get to connect to them in the same way. I felt kind of detached from the story, even during the sinking parts which should have been completely harrowing, there’s was a kind of disconnect. I still really enjoyed it, but it didn’t make me feel quite as much as Lina’s story did.
Here is a short synopsis of the book:
It’s early 1945 and a group of people trek across East Prussia, 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.
As I said before, the chapters of this book are very short, which is both a help and a hindrance, a help because it’s an easy book to finish quickly and quite difficult to put down because you can justify, well the next chapter’s only a few pages, but it’s also kind of a hindrance, the chapters are so short that you don’t really get a chance to get to know the characters that well and like I said, there felt like there was kind of a disconnect between me and the characters.
I liked the continuity of having a similar first line introducing the POV of each of the characters during their first chapter, I thought that was very cool and I loved how she returned to that during the sinking, I liked the circular feel of it.
I liked that the characters were all very different, came from different places and had had different experiences during the war, you have Joana (Lina’s cousin from Between Shades of Grey), a Lithuanian nurse who has been working in German hospitals during the war, Florian, a mysterious boy from East Prussia who is running for an unknown reason, Emilia, a young Polish girl & Alfred, a German soldier. I did feel a kind of disconnect with them though, simply because of the short length of the chapters, I didn’t get to know them as much as I would have liked. Joana I think was my favourite, because of her connection to Lina, it was interesting to see how she was affected by the events of Between Shades of Grey. I also found Florian quite interesting as you could never completely peg down what he was hiding. Emilia was sweet and you felt so bad for her as she had clearly been very damaged by the war. Alfred was a typical German soldier, completely brainwashed by Hitler, so naturally was not very keen on him. I liked that as a group, they were all very different people, it meant their POVs were all very different and the narrators were easily distinguished, I hate it when authors use multiple first person narrators and their voices all sound the same. This was not a problem here though, Sepetys had clearly defined voices for all the characters which I liked.
Sepetys has a very simple writing style which I think worked quite well for this book, honestly, I prefer that kind of writing anyway, I can’t stand it when authors go over the top with the flowery prose and that wouldn’t have worked for this book. The simple, stark prose she uses, suited the tone and the setting of the book perfectly.
I did feel like it took a while to get to the shipwreck part of the book? I get that Sepetys wanted to show the journey of the refugees, but there’s only so long you can read about them venturing across the ice, before you’re like, “this is cool and all but when are we going to get to the main point of this book”. Because the shipwreck doesn’t happen until the end, it’s a little light on the plot side and unlike Between Shades of Grey where it didn’t bother me because I was so swept up in Lina’s story, it bothered me more here.
There was romance in this book, but it was a very small part of it and it was done well. Joana and Florian were both so stubborn, you couldn’t help but be infuriated by them not admitting how they felt to each other. I wasn’t entirely sure if Florian wasn’t just using Joana for most of the book, but by the end of it, he does seem to genuinely feel for her as Joana does for him.
Florian seemed kind of similar to Lina, they’re both quiet, artistic souls and I think that might have been why I liked him as he reminded me a lot of her (kind of similar to why Joana liked him I think!).
The supporting characters were drawn quite well, particularly the shoe poet, I loved him and was so sad by what happened to him.
I really liked the addition of the maps, the one from 1945 and the one from the present day, I thought that was quite cool, getting to see how things have changed from then to now.
The shipwreck itself was written well, you could feel the desperation of the characters and at that point, I felt like the short chapters worked better than they had for most of the book, as it helped convey the panic and distress of the characters. It’s devastating to think that this actually happened to thousands of real people, and that hardly anyone knows about it. Emilia’s last chapter with her imagining her family together again was particularly devastating.
It’s not really relevant to the story, but I love reading Ruta Sepetys’ author’s notes as she clearly does a lot of research for her books and really cares about the real life events that inspired the stories she tells.
Overall, whilst I did have some problems with this book, it tells a very important, untold story of the war that I feel like everyone should read. Over 9000 people died in the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, that’s more than both the Titanic and Lusitania together and yet we don’t know anything about it? These real people deserve to have their stories told and I’m glad that through Joana, Florian, Emilia and Alfred, I got to learn about this horrific part of history that I had not previously known about.
My rating: 3.5/5
The next book I will be reviewing is Paper and Fire, the second book in The Great Library Series by Rachel Caine (I know, I know, it has taken me forever to get to this book. I’ve had it since last summer). In the meantime, I will hopefully have a new discussion post for you guys very soon!
Happy Easter everyone!