Author: Ruta Sepetys
Blurb: Winter, 1945. Four teenagers. Four secrets.
Each one born of a different homeland; each one hunted, and haunted, by tragedy, lies…and war.
As thousands of desperate refugees flock to the coast in the midst of a Soviet advance, four paths converge, vying for passage aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that promises safety and freedom.
Yet not all promises can be kept.
“Yet amidst all that, life has spit in the eye of death.”
The first thing that I really enjoyed about this book was how unique it was. Not necessarily in writing style, but in subject matter and in perspective. I've read a lot of books set during World War 2 and the majority of them tend to be from the perspective of British or American characters so it was very intriguing to me to have four very individual perspectives.
The voices of each character were definitely identifiable and even without the names at the beginning of each chapter I am confident I could tell them apart. Three of the characters are easily likable for different reasons whilst the fourth - Alfred, well he isn't the most pleasant. Joanna was a very strong character, very capable and a lot of the other characters depended on her and were drawn to her. It was great to see, as the book developed, her more vulnerable side though. Florian was another interesting one. He, too, was a very strong character but as we grew to discover his secrets and his motivations he became a lot more sympathetic. Emilia was very different from both of them but she very quickly became my favourite character. Her secrets are revealed slowly over the course of the book and with each one I grew to respect her more and more.
This book takes place as three of the main characters make their way to the Wilhelm Gustloff (the fourth character is already there) and their struggles along the way as well as their continuing struggles on board. I hadn’t heard of the Wilhelm Gustloff before which, given the enormity of the tragedy, was a pretty big oversight of my history teachers and it was definitely interesting for me to learn more even though it also inevitably led to some very sad moments.
This is not a happy or an easy read. Bad things happen to good people (and sometimes to bad people) and the reality behind the fiction made this doubly tragic to read. I left this book feeling as though I grew to really love these characters (except Alfred) and that I had actually learned something. I did find the writing style a bit predictable in places – someone even lets out a breath they didn’t know they were holding. But the overall story and the depth of the characters more than made up for it. This is my first Ruta Sepetys book but I will definitely be looking for more by her.