It’s hard to review books that depict real, often horrific events. Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys is such a book. It’s a historical fiction novel based on the wreckage of the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German military transport ship which was sunk on the 30th of January, 1945. By one estimate, a total of 9,400 people died, which makes it the largest loss of life in a single ship sinking in history.
Salt to the Sea is a young adult novel, very similarly written to Sepetys’ other book, Between Shades of Gray. Simple, short sentences. Even some of the characters reminded me of that book, and the story of Between Shades of Gray main character Lina is also woven into this book, albeit a bit haphazardly.
“Just when you think this war has taken everything you loved, you meet someone and realize that somehow you still have more to give.”
Because this book contains four different POV’s, it was hard for me to get into the story. We usually only stayed with one character for two or three pages, and sometimes even less. This, in combination with the simple language, made it hard for me to connect to any of the characters. Just as I was getting into one story, we were jumping to the next. And the first three quarters of the book, I had the feeling that we were still at the very beginning of the storyline.
One of the four POV’s was Alfred. His character was strange and felt out of place compared to the others. He was the only character that was a Nazi sympathiser, and he was also some kind of.. sociopath? I guess that’s how we could describe him? He is exaggerated to the point of ridicule – he stalks a girl, collects butterflies in the back of his closet, talks in a weird way, sings a little song to himself – the storyline was repetitive and added nothing to the main plotline.
Then there was something else that bothered me.. Sepetys does this thing where she describes a scene but conveniently leaves important information out of her descriptions to build suspense – for example when Florian steals something from Joana’s bag, Sepetys doesn’t tell us what it is for the LONGEST time. That is a cheap convenient plot device and I’m not a fan of it.
However, it wasn’t all bad. I liked Joana and Florian. Joana was the character I could relate to the most. Every single character came from a different background, which made the dynamic they had together that much more interesting. And then there were the Shoe Poet and Klaus, some of my all-time favorite side characters in any historical fiction novel ever. I wish there was more of them in this book!
The setting was super interesting too, the Gustloff shipwreck is quite unexplored in fiction, and it’s definitely a story that deserves to be told.