All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: Salt To The Sea by Ruta Sepetys

on March 10, 2016

Salt To The SeaSalt To The Sea
Ruta Sepetys
Penguin/Random House UK
2016, 400p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Blurb {courtesy of the publisher/}:

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’sThe 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.

I really enjoyed Ruta Sepetys’ first novel, Between Shades of Gray which was the story of a Lithuanian girl displaced during World War II and forced to work in a prison camp in Siberia. I haven’t read her second novel, which was set in New Orleans in the 50s but this, her third caught my attention. Like her first, this one revolves around the second World War – a Lithuanian woman with nursing experience, a 15yo Polish girl with a secret, a Prussian art forger with an even bigger secret and an incompetent Nazi soldier assigned to a naval boat.

Between Shades of Gray is a beautifully written book and this one is loosely linked – Joana, the Lithuanian with nursing experience is Lina’s cousin. However because I read that book so long ago, I didn’t actually remember the connection until Joana confesses the story of her cousin and then all of a sudden, the lightbulb went on. It’s not necessary to have read Between Shades of Gray before this one but they’d probably be nice to read together.

Although I did enjoy this book, I have to admit that when I finished it, I realised a few things about it that kept me from loving it. Most of the characters are making their way across a war-ravaged land – Joana is allowed to repatriate as one of her parents was German. They’re making their way to what the Germans refer to as Gotenhafen as the Red Army advance. There waiting are ships to transport German citizens, injured soldiers, Nazis and other officials to safer parts of Germany. As they trek across a frozen wasteland, dodging soldiers of various descriptions, the narrative switches back and forth so that backstories and secrets are revealed. Three of the narrators – Joana, Emilia and Florian are a part of this group. The fourth is Albert, a young Nazi soldier who is basically, the worst at his job ever. He spends his time composing letters to his love in his head which seek to reinforce just how important he is and how he’s very much a cog in the Party wheel.

The problem is, it takes quite a loooong time for the group to come together and then get to Gotenhafen and be assigned onto boats. By design, they of course all end up on the same boat, the Wilhelm Gustoff when Joana and Florian both bamboozle Alfred, the self-important soldier. I actually wish that less time was spent devoting the story to the journey to the Wilhelm and more from when they actually boarded onward. I’d never heard of the Wilhelm Gustoff before I read this book but it appears that I’m not alone in that – it’s one of the most catastrophic losses of life on the sea but it’s also one of the littlest known. Everyone knows the Titanic and the Lusitania. But the story of this ship is not near so well known and I did a lot of reading after I finished the book and read in the notes that what happens to the Wilhelm Gustoff is very much true. I think that it takes so long for the characters to get on the ship and set sail that everything that happens whilst aboard this ship is very rushed and feels skimmed over at times. It’s very dramatic but it felt rushed and because of this, it didn’t have the emotional punch it should have. Some of these moments the narrative should’ve lingered over, really driven the impact home to the reader but I barely had time to process it before it was gone and we were onto something else that was happening.

The writing is lovely and the setting… feels amazingly realistic. I enjoyed Joana and Florian and my heart broke for Emilia. To be honest it took me a little time to figure out Alfred and his role in the entire story and although I’m not convinced he was necessary, he did occasionally provide some sort of…..weird amusement, in his outrageous mental letters, at first. Then he revealed things that really were quite horrible and added a new dimension to his character. I developed quite an affection for some of the minor characters, which didn’t end well for me! I just feel like the balance was just a little wrong and that the time on the ship should’ve been a more meatier part of the novel.


Book #37 of 2016



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