Guilt is a Hunter: A Review of Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

I can’t lie; Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys (Penguin Books, February 2016) is one of those books which fills you with a sense of dread from very early on, as you feverishly worry about what is going to happen. Books this beautiful and delicately written, in my experience, always end in tears – usually mine. Read on at your own risk, sensitive flowers.

Sepetys’ novel tells the story of those displaced by the hostilities between Russia and saltGermany during World War 2. Among her four narrators are three young people traveling across the barren landscapes of war-torn Europe in search of safety: Joana, a Lithuanian nurse; Emilia, a younger Polish girl with devastating secrets, and Florian, a German with skeletons of his own to hide. Joining them in telling the story is Alfred, a desperately insecure and deeply unsympathetic German soldier, who provides an entirely contrasting point of view.

The novel pulls off a remarkable trick, in educating its reader without being overly didactic: something that draws parallels with that other great children’s/YA WW2 book, John Boyne’s The Boy in Striped Pyjamas, which can only be a good thing as I have never heard anyone, adult or child, say a bad word about the latter. Salt to the Sea echoes Boyne’s book in its innocent narrators, all of whom know less than the reader about the broader narrative in which their story takes place.

Sepetys’ style is never melodramatic, always subtle; even when describing deeply traumatic incidents or spectacles, the writing almost whispers to the reader, willing you to pick up on the subtext of what is being said. An example:

I wasn’t sure how much was exaggeration and how much was true. But I had seen things. A girl, dead in a ditch, her skirt knotted high. An old woman sobbing that they had burned her cottage. Terror was out there. And it chased us.

The book’s subject matter means it is inevitably a sad and troubling read, particularly because you’d have to literally have a heart of ice to not empathise with Sepetys’ characters. Emilia, who has suffered so much before the novel even begins, has stayed with me since finishing, with her narrative style that is somehow different from the others – perhaps because she is isolated by her inability to speak German, Emilia’s chapters have an almost otherworldly feel about them. She is the one who broke my heart the most.

A girl who lost her mother was suddenly a tiny boat on an angry ocean. Some boats eventually floated ashore. And some boats, like me, seemed to float farther and farther from land.

Aside from the principle characters, Sepetys creates minor figures who threaten to cause intense emotional outbursts in the reader; the wandering boy and the shoe poet, in particular, are remarkably drawn characters, again demonstrating that nuance which is evident throughout the book.

Salt to the Sea is a book which deserves crossover success; while ostensibly a YA novel, I hope it will appeal to adult readers too, perhaps those who have read and enjoyed Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer-winning All the Light We Cannot See, with which Salt to the Sea shares a great many attributes. It is a book which made me incredibly sad – for the last quarter of the story, I genuinely felt so tense I thought I might be sick – but, for me, this is the mark of a truly noteworthy novel. Its real-life context, outlined in the Author’s Note at the end, only adds to its emotional impact. Honestly, read it. Just don’t finish it in a public place.

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