Review: Salt to the Sea - Ruta Sepetys
Genre: Historical Fiction (Young Adult) Published: Philomel Books , February 2016 My Rating: 4/5 stars
"War had bled color from everything, leaving nothing but a storm of gray." This i one of those rare books that I changed my rating on after reading it for the second time. I gave it 3 stars the first time, giving it 4 stars now; mostly because I simply can find little fault in it the second time. Not only did the things that stopped me from enjoying then, not bother me so much now, I also found new appreciation for the way it brings to light a tragedy that is overlooked in many a history book.
I still understand my own 3-star rating the first time round, and I have to say: this book will not be for everyone. Critiques I hear often are "it is slow" and "it feels distant/clinical". I will address both shortly, as I agree with both, but also feel like both are appropriate in the context of the themes. The story indeed is slow to get started. If you are only interested in the "boat-journey to safety", as it says in the synopsis, this book is probably not the best for you. It not only takes about 300 pages for the characters to even get a glimpse of the sea, but more importantly, I would argue that anything that happens before that is the more important part of the story. This part is very character-driven, and getting to know them and their motivations is the journey in itself. Reading this book the second time around, I was more invested in the characters, which made the emotional payoff in the end even greater.
The other critique I hear often is that the story is somewhat clinical and distant from the awful events that happened in the war. Especially when describing the greater horrible tragedies that happen in the end. On my second read, this became one of my favorite parts of the story as it felt so realistic to me. We see the war from the eyes of 4 characters and when they speak about their personal experiences and history, we see their emotions and feel their pain with them. Although at times I would have loved a little more character development over the course of the story, all protagonists are distinct and very realistic. Importantly: they are very realistic as children and teenagers. It brings an extra layer to the very adult experiences they have to face and is often quite harrowing to read. This to me, shows that Sepetys is very capable of bringing the emotion across, and makes me believe that her clinical description of the later events is intentional. I think this would be the realistic way, in which the characters saw those events. Some tragedies and experiences are too horrible for your mind to comprehend right away. One of the ways your brain deals with this is dissociation; you feel detached from what happens and block out all emotion. Like it is a movie you are watching, and you are simply a passive observer to the horrors before you. Your mind creates an artificial distance from the situation. A survival-mode to prevent you from going insane. If you have ever seen people directly after a horrible tragedy, some of them are not crying and screaming yet; they are unable to do anything but sit and stare. The realization comes (sometimes years) later, when their minds are done "surviving". This was how I interpreted these "clinical" sections. The emotion, much as for the characters, came later for me, and was even more impactful for it.
To demonstrate how emotional of a read this was to me: I almost DNFed this book twice, not because it was bad, but because it depresses me in a way. It didn't give me the relief of a good cry, but left me with a sinking feeling in my stomach and this feeling of "Weltschmertz". It was hard for me to finish it, but honestly, that is the way a book about war should made you feel.
The ability to provoke such emotion in me as a reader is a testamony to the skill of Sepetes as an author. I think her prose, although at times simple, is beautiful and some of her metaphors are downright gorgeous.
I have to give it to Sepetys that out of the many WWII stories I've read and heard, this is one that has stayed (and will stay) with me for a long time.
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