Published by Penguin on February 2nd 2016
Genres: Historical Fiction, Young Adult
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For readers of Between Shades of Gray and All the Light We Cannot See, international bestselling author Ruta Sepetys returns to WWII in this epic novel that shines a light on one of the war's most devastating—yet unknown—tragedies.
World War II is drawing to a close in East Prussia, and thousands of refugees are on a desperate trek toward freedom, almost all of them with something to hide. Among them are Joana, Emilia, and Florian, whose paths converge en route to the ship that promises salvation, the Wilhelm Gustloff. Forced by circumstance to unite, the three find their strength, courage, and trust in one another tested with each step closer toward safety.
Just when it seems freedom is within their grasp, tragedy strikes. Not country, nor culture, nor status matter as all ten thousand people aboard must fight for the same thing: survival.
I try, I really do, but Sepetys’s war stories do nothing for me. Yes, I know I’m in the minority. I was one of few who didn’t love her debut – Between Shades of Gray – and much preferred her second book – Out of the Easy. Now she returns to World War II and, once again, I don’t get it.
As with her first novel, I feel a little uncomfortable being negative about these kinds of books. This was a horrific time when some terrible atrocities were committed and I applaud the author for always focusing on the unknown, but no less true, parts of history.
Many of us know the tales of German and Polish Jews during the Nazi reign, far less know what Lithuanian refugees faced. Even fewer will know of the tragedy this book is about. I like that. Historical fiction that teaches me something is always appreciated. However, a few history lessons is truly all I took from this book.
The story is told in very short chapters of 2-3 pages (sometimes just a few sentences) and the perspective jumps between four different people – Joana, Florian, Emilia and Alfred. Personally, this didn’t work for me. We spent so little time with each character before moving on that I constantly felt distanced from them, never making an emotional connection. In the beginning, the rapid movement between perspectives even made it difficult to follow the story.
Sepetys, for me, writes some of the most detached accounts of WW2 atrocities. It honestly shouldn’t be that hard to evoke sympathy or some feeling for these poor people, but I genuinely felt nothing. You know those expendable people that get gunned down in movies while the hero runs from the bad guys? The ones who the camera brushes over and we never think about again? That is how I felt when learning of all the casualties and brutality in this book.
The book is told in one long, tedious journey and features many flashbacks that failed to pique my interest. The present is literally about them trekking across the icy landscape and having to show their papers to one soldier after another, before finally getting to the boat they want to board. I’m sorry, but it was so boring.
Maybe I could put it down to recently reading a fast-paced, exciting (and horrifying) book set during the Second World War – Front Lines – but, to be honest, I just think the author’s war stories are not for me. I’m an emotional reader, and this kind of narrative leaves me cold.