I already knew I was going to love Salt to the Sea. I also already knew it was going to make me feel all the things. That it was going to hurt. I was right.
I mean it didn’t hurt as much as Between Shades of Gray - which FYI I am still not over, will likely never be over – but still, it kind of got me right in the chest because Ruta Sepetys has this way of making you feel like you’re actually living the words on the page and the words on the page whilst utterly beautiful do not depict the happiest of times. I mean I won’t lie; I went into this book with an actual sense of dread. At the very best this would be bittersweet; it very likely wouldn’t even be that and yet, I wanted to read it so badly.
Salt to the Sea is set in 1945. The second World War is drawing to a close and thousands upon thousands of refugees are desperately making their way to what they can only hope will be freedom; a second chance; a new start. Our story for the main part is that of a Lithuanian nurse, a Prussian soldier, a young Polish girl (and a young strangely desperate and completely sociopathic Nazi.)
They first three, and the people they’re travelling with are desperate to board a ship (the Wilhelm Gustloff, which, please please Google it. It makes the Titanic look like a storm in a teacup. 1053 lives were lost when the Titanic sank; around 9400 lives were lost when the Wilhelm Gustloff went down) which will take them to some kind of promised land – any place will be better probably than what they’re walking away from. & they are walking, they’re walking miles.
Sepetys picks you up, and she unceremoniously sets you down in that abandoned barn, on that dusty road, on that harbour where people are fighting to be allowed passage; your feet hurt and your hearts hurts and your stomach rumbles and you’re lonely and terrified and still somehow kind of hopeful and you feel like you know Joana who has left so much behind and is carrying around all this guilt and yet still puts everyone else before herself; the Poet who you just want to love and protect because he’s this old man and he’s seen so much; Florian who pretends he’s tough but you know really isn’t and who has secrets of his own; Emilia who, well, hers is a story that you need to read really, but be prepared for your heart to fracture. You know them and you love them and you ache for them more so because whilst you know that they perhaps didn’t exist, thousands like them did, that those things happened to very real people and there’s no hiding from it.
There’s this one scene where a woman throws her baby at the ship so desperate is she to make sure that her child gets away from what has become a living hell and I swear I made this weird sort of keening noise. It’s two sentences at most and it still hurts like a sucker punch. It hurts because it might not be true but yet it still really is. This shit happened, Jesus look at the world right now. This shit is still happening and I don’t know perhaps that’s what makes this book so powerful and so poignant. What happened here, 70 years ago and that seems so atrocious and so unbelievable is a thing we’re seeing every time we turn on the television (and don’t get me started on how my stomach dropped when I drove through Calais a couple of weeks ago) It’s unreal but it’s so real. It’s unreal that it happened then, but it did. It’s unreal that it’s still happening, and yet. And yet.
Sepetys has a talent. Not many people could write a novel with 4 very different, equally strong voices and not have you feeling lost of overpowered. Sepetys does, each character is important, each story matters and despite the switch from one point of view to another the story doesn’t lose pace for a second. & God but it’s well researched. SO well researched.
Has it gotten under my skin like Between Shades of Gray? No, but I think perhaps that’s because I was prepared for it . I went into BSoG not knowing what I was about to read; I went into this with my heart protected in a layer of bubble wrap. However, this, like Between Shades of Gray is a story of survival, of hope when everything seems hopeless and the sheer strength of the human spirit. It’s a difficult book, but it’s one that is so worth reading because it’s important and it’s beautiful. And there’s a nod to Between Shades of Gray in there too which made my fangirl heart flutter.