Book Review: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Publisher: Puffin

First Published: 22nd March 2011

Format: Paperback

Pages: 344

Genre: Historical, YA

Recommended Reading Age: 14+

Rating: 7.5/10

Amazon/Goodreads

‘One night fifteen-year-old Lina, her mother and young brother are hauled from their home by Soviet guards, thrown into cattle cars and sent away. They are being deported to Siberia. An unimaginable and harrowing journey has begun. Lina doesn’t know if she’ll ever see her father or her friends again. But she refuses to give up hope.

Lina hopes for her family. For her country. For her future. For love – first love, with the boy she barely knows but knows she does not want to lose… will hope keep Lina alive?’

It took me a while to get round to reading this, partly because I knew it would probably be an emotional reading experience and I had to be in the right state of mind. Between Shades of Gray is one of those books I have barely heard a bad review or comment on, and its reputation is well deserved. This is a very moving book, that brings to light the atrocities committed by the Soviets, on par with the Germans during the second world war. So why the slightly lower rating?

This is going to be a fairly short review – the issues I had with Between Shades of Gray are all due to the ending and because I don’t want to ruin anyone else’s reading experience by giving too much away, that makes writing a review slightly difficult. But also because this is probably one of those books that is best just experienced.

Despite the sensitive, at times horrifying, subject matter, this is a very light, easy read. I would say that the narrative, while it flows nicely, is, at times, a little too simplistic. The effect is as though you are experiencing everything through a child’s eyes. The pros of this style of narration means that it makes Between Shades of Gray the perfect book for younger readers, allowing them to connect with characters their own age and understand the devastating history of Stalin’s rule on a more personal level. There were also some rather beautiful, profound moments that come out of its simplicity, such as the moment the NKVD come for Lina and her family,

”Twenty minutes,” the officer barked He threw his burning cigarette onto our clean living room floor and ground it into the wood with his boot. We were about to become cigarettes.’

But as an older reader, touched though I was by the characters and their plight, even moved to tears at certain scenes, I found Between Shades of Gray lacked a raw emotion, power and lasting impression, particularly when compared to other YA books that have tackled very similar subjects.

Despite this, I still became invested in the story and felt a mounting sense of dread as the story progressed. I loved the relationships and dynamics between the characters, especially Jonas who is forced to grow up and deal with situations far beyond his years. You forget completely that he is only eleven years old, only to be painfully reminded of how young he really is, in the worst possible way. Lina is actually the character I liked the least, though I wouldn’t go as far as to say I actually disliked her. She was rather petulant and naive for a good part of the novel, but her character grew on me and I loved the growing friendship between her and Andrius which was handled realistically and was incredibly sweet. I also enjoyed reading about a protagonist with a passion for drawing and art. But it was their mother who was the defining character of this novel, her courage, compassion, and goodness in the face of terrible adversity.

It’s a shame that Between Shades of Gray was ruined, for me, by the abrupt and disjointed ending. It felt as though everyone had decided that the book couldn’t go over a certain page count, or worse, that the author had backed herself into a corner and was unable to write her way out of it, at least not without turning this into a mammoth of a novel (which I wouldn’t have minded in the least), without being, unfortunately, unsuitable for its target audience.

Without giving too much away, I was left with many, many questions. The epilogue jumps forward 50 years and we discover it was many, many years after we last saw Lina and Jonas that they make it home again. How did they escape? How did they survive? Was her father alive? Did he ever receive the drawings she sent him? What was Kretzsky’s story?

It’s not a bad ending, Sepetys ends on a quiet sense of hope for the future, and I would have been just as angry with an ending that wrapped everything up neatly, but I did feel cheated out of important moments the novel had teased and built up too, especially with regards a certain reunion. It felt like we had been cut off in the middle of Lina’s story, and I only wish Sepetys had discounted the page count and given us the full story.

The ending may have left me frustrated, but Between Shades of Gray is still a very, very good novel and one that should be in every classroom. We never actually covered Stalin at school and it was surreal and disheartening to read a novel, based on historical fact and testimonies, whereby you can’t hope but wish the German’s would gain ground and rescue Lina, Jonas, Elena and Andrius. Not without flaws, but a book that everyone should read. Take care to make sure you read the author’s note at the end as well, as it provides some touching insight into the history behind the novel and even why it ends the way it does.

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