Throwback Thursday: Josephine’s Book Edition
It's (Throwback) Thursday! Let’s talk about Ruta Sepetys and Between Shades of Gray.
I read this in the summer of 2011. Ian and I were on holiday in Cornwall, staying in a beach hut style cottage and I started this book on the beach at St Ives and finished in my beach hut bed whilst Ian read a car magazine beside me. I seem to recall we drank wine and ate Maltesers and it would have been so lovely had this book not crushed my soul. I got about three quarters of the way through, said to Ian ‘I think I’m sad,’ and promptly burst into tears. Like, I was actually sobbing. We're talking proper ugly crying here people, the real deal.
The book is about, in a nutshell, Siberian work camps in WWII and it’s really freaking brutal.
It’s also exceptionally well written.
This is WWII like I’d never really seen before, and I hated myself for that. I never really knew that any of this terrible horrible stuff even happened. You just don’t hear about it the same as you do say, the Holocaust, or at least I never had. You think about WWII and you think about Hitler and the mass genocide of the Jews, but this, the millions of people that were killed by Stalin and his men, it’s kind of glossed over. We’d touched on it briefly at school, and I knew Stalin was a total dickwad, but the atrocities portrayed in Between Shades of Gray, (which, fitting title is fitting, as a by the by because this book is all about varying shades of gray - good people doing shitty things and random acts of kindness from total bastards) those atrocities I had little idea about.
& that ignorance left me feeling disturbed and guilty and somehow humbled.
That’s the thing I think: that this might be a work of ‘fiction’ but at the same time it’s totally not. It’s not. These things happened. It’s part of our history, and what the hell is there that feels like a sucker-punch in quite the same way as knowing that? That letting people freeze to death in huts they built themselves whilst enjoying a glass of whiskey by a fire is a thing that happened? That it's only one in a too long list of inhuman things that happened to innocent people.
Reading this book made me angry, it made my chest physically hurt – breathing in, filling my lungs, at some points hurt – it broke my heart. Not just the brutality of it either, but the hope; each and every smile made my eyes water, each joke made me want to cry, each tiny act of kindness felt like a knife wound and the love story, Lina and Andrius. Jesus God. I swear. I don’t know if it made me hurt more or less.
Even thinking about it now kind of makes me want to cry a little bit.
And yet. And yet.
I could not put it down. I swear. I couldn’t stop reading.
Here’s the thing. This book is not a nice book. Bittersweet, that’s the word: it will not fill you with any kind of joy, really (although, that said there are moments that shine like a beacon in the darkness, like the brightest of stars in the night sky) It will, instead, smash your heart into millions of tiny little pieces.
‘Why the hell,’ I hear you (especially you, Helen. You are particularly loud. I am a mystery to you, I know.) ‘would I want to read a book that's going make me so sad?’
You want to read it because whilst it’s not pretty, it is beautiful. And it will change you. And it matters. You need to read it, you do, because I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that it is phenomenal, but, (and this is very important) you need to read it prepared for what it will make you feel.