They took me in my nightgown.
Sepetys’ debut novel is hauntingly beautiful in both execution and subject matter. I have always been drawn to books and films set in/around the First and Second World Wars and studied much of the British/German history at school and yet I came to Between Shades of Gray completely ignorant of the events it focusses on.
This novel opens up a ‘forgotten’ part of history – the suffering and mass genocide of the Baltic people at the hands of Stalin and Soviet Russia. Inspired by her own family history, Sepetys’ Between Shades of Gray unearths the story of one family in 1941 and follows their deportation from their home in Lithuania to a Siberian prison camp.
Set in a period of history when humanity was so obviously lacking, Sepetys paints a powerful portrait of human survival. You can’t help but fall in love with the featured Vilkas family, particularly the primary protagonist 15-year-old Lina. She tells her story with such straightforward clarity and calm demeanour that in any other author’s hands would detach the audience but Sepetys uses Lina’s strength to encapsulate the subtleties of ‘still waters run deep’.
The Vilkas family are a solid unit with an unstable future, surviving as best they can and trying to help others do the same. By following a single family and their interactions with others, Sepetys is also able to step out from the closed, personal account and creates an engaging narrative that illustrates a community of people forced into a situation away from freedom. The portrayal of each character is wonderfully executed, a cross section of prisoner ‘society’, and effectively explores implications of each individual’s choice. This style of narrative also gives room for narration by omission – introducing implied events that older readers can pick up on whilst shielding a younger audience from the more disturbing reality of the Great Purge.
The focus of this novel makes it a compelling read, carrying with it a harrowing yet hopeful message – not so much ‘we will remember them’ as ‘we will learn about and then remember them’. The title of the book is taken or based on a particularly beautiful scene that outlines that hope can be found anywhere, even between the gray:
“That’s when I saw it. A tiny silver of gold appeared between shades of gray on the horizon.
I stared at the amber band of sunlight, smiling.
The sun had returned.”
The impact of this book hits you head on. As soon as I had finished it, I sat on the train just thinking about the importance of this novel and its significance in exposing the subject and issues of that particularly part of history. This book would be a stunningly affective novel on its own but the fact it is based on real experience and brings that to the fore makes it an incredibly valuable novel indeed. A must read.