"Twenty minutes," the officer barked. He threw his burning cigarette onto our clean living room floor and ground it into the wood with his boot.
We were about to become cigarettes.
I read this on paperback and that was on page 5.
You kinda get the sense that your patronus will be getting a workout with this book early on.
But for a young-adult book chronicling a Lithuanian family's journey under Stalin's deportation of the Baltic States in the 1940s, this went down rather smoothly. Between Shades of Gray's narrative was frank, the prose straightforward and the story's emotional stock thankfully laid on strong, likable characters. Not saying it's a happy book (because it really isn't) but don't be put off by the heaviness of the subject matter. Ruta Sepetys did a great job taking you there, vividly painting the atrocities done to these people while the rest of the world was distracted by the dawn of World War II.
As seen through the eyes of a 15-year old girl.
Lina was a very effective narrator. She's strong, opinionated, temperamental and judgmental but you can't help but like her all the same. She doesn't get into lengthy inner monologues romanticizing her suffering or wax beautiful poetic words meant wring out every drop of tear from you. What she does very well is engage you in matter-of-fact storytelling, despite the dreariness of her situation, allowing you to appreciate her, her art and the people she's taking this journey with.
We'd been trying to touch the sky from the bottom of the ocean. I realized that if we boosted one another, maybe we'd get a little closer.
While survival, hope and the strength of the human spirit are themes that have been used before in this genre, what sets BSoG apart for me was the cinematic delivery of the story without pulling any hysterical stunts. I loved every single character in this book (most especially her mother) they each served a purpose, much like every word, every gesture served as emotional bombs set to explode at the right precise moments.
I liked the subtlety in the treatment of Andrius and Lina's story. Their moments providing an exhale to all the tension going on. Something refreshing and different after reading the sweeping epicness of The Bronze Horseman that led me to discover the romantic quotient of a well-groomed, handsome boy kissing a girl with a lice infestation.
My only nitpick is it got a little too documentary at certain points. There were some stretches that depicted cruelty after cruelty without any reprieve to contemplate the horror being delivered such that the next suffering just blended with the rest. I wish the light moments were spaced a little better. And I may have wanted a bit more time to languish on the emotional depths of a particular scene that wasn't given enough space because the next horror is right around the next page.
But for a coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of World War II, Ruta Sepetys' first attempt at a novel successfully delivered in punching a hole in my gut and my feels. The final one being from the author's note at the end (of all places):
Some wars are about bombing. For the people of the Baltics, this war was about believing.