Salt to the Sea Review
Salt to the Sea by Ruta Septys: My Review
Rating: 4/5 stars
Salt to the Sea was a breathtakingly intense, raw and emotional novel that I'm sure is going to stick with me for a very long time. Set in early 1945, it sheds light on the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustoff, a maritime disaster which claimed more than 9,000 lives, yet remains a very neglected part of history. I'd never heard a word about this tragedy before reading this book, conceivably due to a world that was less than sympathetic to German loss and pain following the end of WWII and the divulging of the Nazi acts of barbarity, or perhaps it's been overshadowed by the sinking of the Titanic and the Lusitania which had many famous passengers. Whatever the reason, I'm so very glad I read this book as it was hugely enlightening and just a devastatingly beautiful story.
The novel follows four distinct perspectives: Joana, a Lithuanian nurse; Emilia, a young Polish girl; Florian, Emilia's mysterious Prussian rescuer; and Alfred, a young German soldier. Each of them come from very diverse backgrounds but their lives converge as they are all vying to flee to safety as Russian troops gain ground towards the end of the war. At the core of this novel is the fight to survive; each one of the main protagonists have their own secrets to hide and a different motivation for their actions. Septys brings a very human side to war as she explores the depths of human depravity alongside the incredible kindness that people are capable of in spite of the inhumanity of war; Florian and Emilia saving eachother, Joana's concern for others, the shoe poet's care for the young orphaned boy. The way the characters' perspectives were laced together was brilliant and I felt like every single word written on the page had a purpose. There is also a rich supply of secondary characters, such as Ingrid, the shoe poet and the wandering boy, who breathed their own charm into the story and played a significant role in making the book a hugely poignant reading experience.
Out of the four main protagonists, I absolutely loved three of them: Joana, Florian and Emilia. They genuinely felt so real and I wished desperately that I could change their fate; their will and desperation to make it one day further towards hopeful salvation evoked so much empathy from me throughout the entire novel. The one character I didn't like whatsoever was Alfred, but he was purposely constructed to be an unlikable narrator and, while he was my least favourite, I found him to be the most fascinating. The only German in the novel, he is depicted as a highly delusional young man who spends much of his narrative composing mental letters to a girl he loved named Hannelore, telling her about his heroic sacrifices and exceptional abilities as he saves Germany, when in reality he hides from his duties and is asked to clean the toilets. This delusion, however, is born from his hopeless indoctrination by Nazi propaganda and blind loyalty to Adolf Hitler, so Alfred's character really demonstrates how the young people of Germany came to believe Hitler's ideas about racial, social and political enemies: 'Leave the browned cabbage in the basket' is a line of his that has stuck with me.
I adored the way Salt to the Sea was written as well as how it was constructed. Fact and fiction are weaved together seamlessly as Septys' fictional characters convey the very real struggles and desires experienced by those refugees who fled to safety. The accounts of the extreme horrors (particularly at the end) are not overly graphic but I still found them very hard to read as I couldn't stop thinking about how thousands of lives were being irrevocably changed before the characters' very eyes. What prevents this book from being downright dreary and depressing, however, is the frantic, fast-paced electricity it has to it, particularly in the last 80 pages, which is aided by very short chapters of around 2-3 pages which continually jump from one perspective to another. Rather than finding the multiple POV thing frustrating (which I have done in other books), it was instead really satisfying to have the story spun around from all angles and swapping the eyes through which is it told because each character has something very distinct and unique to bring to the table. As a result, this made Salt to the Sea successful as a book that satisfies both a well-developed plot and well-developed characters, which is where a lot of novels fail.
Overall, while I knew this was going to be a sad book, I was unprepared for it to have such a hard emotional impact on me. None of the agony felt during this enormous sweeping scale of death and horror is spared, yet importantly neither is any of the kindness, courage and sacrifice. I would highly, highly recommend Salt to the Sea to anyone who loves historical fiction, particularly novels that address lesser-known parts of history, and I definitely want to get round to reading Ruta Septys' others books very soon.