This review is a little different than the others because I couldn’t really fit my thoughts into the categories I normally use… and also this is an entirely different kind of book.
Apologies now for my nonsensical writing in some places, my appalling grammar and spelling and the repetitive nature of my phrases, but I wanted to write the review quickly before I forgot what I wanted to say and while it was still fresh.
Sepetys’ ‘Between Shades of Gray’ tells the story of fifteen year old Lina, a girl who is deported from her home in Latvia when the Soviets invades their country on the cusp of WW2 and follows their fight for survival against all odds.
This book really touched me, I’m trying not to sound clichéd, but it really did. I read it in about two days, it was a quick read…not because of the writing, but because I wanted to find out what happened to Lina and her family and the people she met along the way. It was such a compelling story, I had to know.
This is a greatly bleak story set in one of the bleakest eras of modern history. But perhaps the most upsetting part of the story is that I had no idea any of this really happened. Whether it is my own ignorance or the fact that it’s just often overlooked because of what was to follow, I don’t know… but I’m glad that I read about it (and, like Sepetys urges in her author’s note… I did research it.) Sepetys tells a story that is not often read about in the history books. I think the reason why this book affected me the most is because it showed me that just when I thought I had heard all the impossible things that happened in this era- there’s still so much you don’t know.
Sepetys has a powerful writing style, doing the seemingly impossible feet of finding the words to portray something so terrible it is difficult to believe it actually could happen (I found that this was similar to Maus). The events in the book are brutally honest and she doesn’t shy away from the truth or sugar-coat it in any way, which would have been easy due to the intended audience of the novel. But the thing is, Sepetys had a story to tell and she did it without having to resort to stereotypes and that is a mark of a true writer.
Even though Lina is the main character and our narrator, this book is about so many other people. The people she meets while they are being bundled on the train to Siberia, the guards that keep them prisoner in the work camps, the people whose insignificant actions have altered Lina’s life forever. I love how this novel puts a name to the people whose stories haven’t been told, for whatever reason, in mainstream fiction and gives them a voice.
Many of the chapters are split into two sections, Lina’s accounts of what are happening to her in the work camps and memories that she has that lead up to their capture. This technique provides an effective juxtaposition between Lina’s present and her past when everything was completely different. It was really moving and cleverly done. I must admit, I got a lump in my throat when I read the chapter that juxtaposed the trivial boy problems of the past with the intense bond that she creates with Andrius, a boy that she meets in the train carriage and who goes on to be in the same work camp as her. It really put things into perspective, not just for Lina… but for me and my trivial circumstances.
Septys has a great eye for detail and it is the little things that she observed about humanity that really struck a chord for me. The man winding his watch, the girl with the dead doll, the Dickens book and Andrius’ little notes to Lina within the pages, her mother applying lipstick even when all hope was gone… it was these simple things that reminded me that this book is a story about people and humanity.
Towards the end of the book, when Lina faith is being truly tested, there is a really powerful conversation between her and an angry, cynical bald man, who has an opinion on everything. Throughout the book, Septys depicts him in a comical light… he always has a negative thing to say to everyone and tells it like it is… but this conversation shows him as the vulnerable man he really is, scared of life but scared of killing himself and what lies for him there. Lina feels guilty for surviving, when everything she has ever known is dying around her, but she wants to live. After everything she has been through, she wants to live for everyone and everything that has been lost and so it wasn’t all in vain.
The book ends on a positive, optimistic and, ultimately, defiant note. Lina has been through everything and survived and she will carry on surviving. And this is what this book is about…. It’s a story of human survival in an era when humanity was, sadly, lacking.
‘Between Shades of Gray’ is an important story and one that should have been told decades earlier. It wholly deserves the phenomenal reviews it has been getting and I believe that this book should be required reading for every high school student. This is a story that needs to be read.