Book Review: Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys. Thanks to Penguin Random House and Netgalley for the ARC.
Salt to the Sea, set in Germany in 1945, is the story of four young people who are connected through the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship with over 9000 civilian
refugees on board which sank in WW2. The story is told in first-person, moving between each of the characters’ perspectives: Joana, a nurse who
had fled from Lithuania; Emilia, a Polish girl with a secret; Florian, a young German man who appears to be hiding his identity; and Alfred, a Nazi soldier. The story begins as three of these people meet and are travelling towards the Wilhelm Gustloff, and spans their journey and the aftermath of the ship sinking.
I wouldn’t read historical fiction if I wasn’t interested in coming away from the book having learnt something, and Salt to the Sea definitely gave me this: I’d never heard of this particular disaster before, and it was insightful seeing it from the perspectives of these very different, very personally affected characters. Overall, Sepetys’ research was evident in making the story come to life, without dominating the writing. It was only in the very beginning of the book that I felt there wasn’t enough sense of the setting and had a hard time understanding where the characters were or what was happening.
This might have been due to the shifting perspectives; each chapter, from a separate character’s point of view, was extremely short, usually only 2-3 pages. An advantage of this was that it added to the sense of immediacy in the narrative. This was particularly suitable in the first half of the story, when Joana, Florian and Emilia are on their desperate journey to reach the ship. However, four points of view is also a lot to jump in between, and as I got to each character’s chapter I sometimes had a hard time connecting the present with what was happening to them beforehand. Also, many of the point-of-view characters don’t know, and hence don’t refer to, each other by name; whilst there was a reason for this, it was one more thing that made it hard to keep track of what was happening to each character.
A lot of historical fiction can fall into the trap of being too detached rather than shaping the storyline through the characters’ eyes. On this front, Sepetys is partially successful. The aforementioned issues with the shifting points of view meant that the characters weren’t characterised in as much depth as they could have been, and I left the book feeling like I didn’t connect with them as much as I would have liked. However, they did all have a distinctive voice, so it was only on occasion that I mixed them up (rare for me, with multiple first-person points of view!). Each character also had sufficient backstory and mystery for the reader to be intrigued by them, at the very least; and to feel for them, as tragedies occurred. The pacing of the story hindered, this, though; around 100 pages in the middle are spent on the boarding of the ship and the delay before its departure, and at this point the narrative slowed significantly in its focus on concealing identity, on repetitive problems, on logistics, etc.
Overall, I recommend this book, for the insight in gives the reader in learning about this historical event, to be able to see it from a personal perspective, and the often mysterious characters who intrigue you enough to keep reading. The pacing, while tedious in the middle, isn’t a huge issue, but hopefully other readers will be able to connect to the characters and adjust to the frequent point of view shifts more easily than I did