I am actually a little breathless having finished this book, it’s taken my breath away and I’m feeling that awful grief you get when you have finished a book that is really special and you know your time with the characters has come to an end. I had heard wonderful things about Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys but I really had not expected to fall in love with this book quite as hard as I did.
The first thing that struck me about this book is that it is based on fact and actual events that occurred at the end of the second world war. Being naturally inquisitive I went and found out more about the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German transport ship that was transporting German military and refugees in the Baltic Sea when it was struck by torpedoes from a Russian submarine causing the loss of around 9,400 lives. This makes it the biggest maritime disaster of all time and yet I know that so few people have heard of this and now having read this story I find it even more heartbreaking.
The story is told in really short chapters. Each is only a page or two long so the story drives forward really quickly and in bursts that whilst initially giving us only snippets about our characters does help to add to the mystery about their backgrounds. We have four main characters who narrate the book, each of them has a different secret they are hiding and they are all seeking the same thing, escape from their past and a new future with the promise of reuniting with loved ones they have lost or a fresh start. As their stories intertwine we learn more about the tragedies each have faced, the difficult choices war has forced upon them and the horrors they have seen along the way.
Of our narrators 3 of the 4 are wonderful characters, the fourth is a complex and difficult one to like but his voice is equally important as he brings us the voice of the German Nazi machine as it begins to fall apart and the unhinged beliefs of the Fuhrer and how they have infiltrated the German people. We may not like him but his voice provides the context that brings the books dark undertones even more to the fore.
The stories in this book are gritty and heartbreaking. Of the Young Adult novels I’ve read about World War II this alongside The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas are probably two of the most emotional and touching. Not to say that others are not but the subject matter is difficult to read, it includes some very adult themes and doesn’t hold back during the storytelling about the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff.
I read this book in a day, I could not put it down. Once I had understood each of the characters back stories I was rooting for them, I fell in love with the surrounding characters and the character of the Shoe Poet will remain with me for a long time to come. The quote he makes on deck of the ship just before it is hit is beautiful as he tells Florian “Just when you think this was has taken everything you loved, you meet someone and realise that somehow you still have more to give” This was so poignant from an elderly man talking about the loss of his wife and how a young orphan boy gave him the strength to go on. It was such a beautiful moment in a book filled with much darkness.
It is a book I didn’t have to think about what rating it deserved, from the moment I picked it up till I finished it I was drawn in, it engaged me fully and it made me fall in love with it. Absolutely inspiring writing and I cannot wait to try more books from Ruta Sepetys.