Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Review: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Dear blog,
Summary (from Goodreads): Lina is just like any other fifteen-year-old Lithuanian girl in 1941. She paints, she draws, she gets crushes on boys. Until one night when Soviet officers barge into her home, tearing her family from the comfortable life they've known. Separated from her father, forced onto a crowded and dirty train car, Lina, her mother, and her young brother slowly make their way north, crossing the Arctic Circle, to a work camp in the coldest reaches of Siberia. Here they are forced, under Stalin's orders, to dig for beets and fight for their lives under the cruelest of conditions.
Lina finds solace in her art, meticulously—and at great risk—documenting events by drawing, hoping these messages will make their way to her father's prison camp to let him know they are still alive. It is a long and harrowing journey, spanning years and covering 6,500 miles, but it is through incredible strength, love, and hope that Lina ultimately survives. Between Shades of Gray is a novel that will steal your breath and capture your heart.

Review: Before I read this, it had been the longest time since I'd read some actual proper young adult historical fiction.  Things like  A Dead Man's Memoir and Le Bal and such don't really count because they were written in that era.  So Between Shades of Gray was a refreshing change from the stuff I've been reading at the moment.  It is also what can only be described as an epic literary win because it's set in the Baltic states and Russia.  The deportation of thousands of Latvians, Estonians, Lithuanians and Finns is probably something that I only know about because I've been an utter history geek since I was like five.  But it's such an important part of eastern European history, it totally shouldn't go unread about. 

It's heart-wrenching from the first chapter, jumping straight into the story. The last sentence of the first chapter is some intense foreshadowing; "We were about to become cigarettes"... I just...when I read that, I wanted to burst into tears, put the book down and seek out some fluffy shojo manga as fast as I could.  But then on the other hand, once you've seen Lina's terrible journey begin, you have to follow it through to see if she's strong enough to emerge at the other end.   Lina's experiences are in turn humiliating, disturbing, terrifying and harrowing, and Ruta Sepetys shields the reader from nothing.

The characters.  Every one was valuable, as if each of them was meant to be there, and served a purpose, even if it was ultimately do die.  I quite liked the way that some characters were never given names; like the man who wound his watch, for instance.  I wondered at first if this would become quite annoying if Lina kept referring to people by their distinguishing features as opposed to their real names, but in a way it seemed very real, and such characters still had real personality and depth to them. 

I liked Lina, of course I did.  How could I not? She was an entirely ordinary teenage girl, her reactions to the nightmare that she was thrown into were so...natural, complete with actual fear that radiated off the page and everything.  If I said that the whole way through that she was strong and brave and willing to do whatever she could to keep her family together, that would be lying, because she wasn't always like that; there were points where she was scared, where she'd done things that she had regretted.  But that made her all the more human, to my mind.

Lina's mother Elena was also pretty awesome, for lack of a better word. I totally admire how she managed to keep her chin up for her children all the way through like that. And her brother Jonas was so sweet.  He was an interesting character to observe throughout the story, because at the start he seemed very much like a boy and then by the end, a young man.

I also liked the writing style. It was very spare, but in an entirely flowing way.  I haven't read many books recently that have been such an ideal balance of simplicity and poetry; at some points it seemed very relevant to the harsh Russian landscapes, and not a word is wasted.   Throughout the book, at the end of some of the chapters, there were little flashbacks to Lina's past life in Lithuania that were somehow relevant to the present plot.  In turn it was kind of a relief to detract from the present events, but on the other it just seemed to make the contrast between her past and present life all the more saddening.  Some of the flashbacks were kind of foreshadowing to their deportation.

So, this is an entirely essential read for anyone, whether history is in general something they're interested by or not.  I look forward to seeing what Ruta Sepetys writes next.

In three words: heartbreaking, enlightening, haunting.
Recommended for: Everyone with a box of tissues to hand.
Rating: 5

1 comment:

  1. I added a link to your review at my Saturday Review of Books ( ). You're welcome to come take a look and add a link any Saturday.


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