* I shut the bathroom door and caught sight of my face in the mirror. I had no idea how quickly it was to change, to fade. If I had, I would have stared at my reflection, memorizing it. It was the last time I would look into a real mirror for more than a decade. *
Lina is just an ordinary, youg Lithuanian girl. She paints, she draws, she gets crushes on boys. Until the night in 1941 when Soviet guards haul Lina and her family from their home. Separated from her father and forced into a cattle car, Lina, her mother and her young brother begin a harrowing journey north, across the Arctic Circle, to a work camp in the frozen wastes of Siberia.
There they are forced, under Stalin's orders, to struggle for their lives under the cruellest of conditions. Lina's only solace is her art. At great risk, she draws, recording the beauty and the horror and even the ordinariness that she sees every day, hoping that one day her father, wherever he may be, might look upon her work.
Until that day Lina must wait, draw and try to survive...
* Exactly a year before, the Soviets have begun moving troops over the borders into the country. Then, in August, Lithuania was officially annexed into the Soviet Union. When I complained at the dinner table, Papa yelled at me and told me to never, ever say anything derogatory about the Soviets. He sent me to my room. I didn’t say anything out loud after that. But I thought about it a lot. *
Given the reaction of most people I talked to about this book, I would like to clarify something before I start. This review is not going to be about an erotic novel. It is not going to be about Anastasia and Christian’s relationship. It is not going to be about El James’ Fifty shades of grey. No, Between shades of gray has got nothing to do with the fast-selling novel everybody seems to be talking about, it is a completely different book, although there are similarities in the titles.
The story is that of Lina, a young Lithuanian girl who is deported one night in 1941 with her mother and brother. Her father has been arrested as well, but she does not know where he is. A horrible journey starts for them and for many other Lithuanians, from cattle cars to labour camps. Lina must fight to survive every day in these harsh conditions, with no food and constant fear of the NKVD police. But she wants to see her home again, and her father. So despite the risk, she draws and writes, hoping her art will save them.
The theme chosen by Ruta Sepetys is grim: deportation. Too often, we forget that other countries than Western European ones have been affected by war in a dramatic way. It is the case of Lithuania, torn between Russia and Germany. The war was the opportunity for the secret police working under Stalin'orders to remove anybody considered as dangerous for their government. So in a few days only, thousands of people were deported and nobody reacted. The horror began for many Lithuanians, Estonians, Latvians and Finns, whose families were torn apart, who were sent to prison or to labour camps, killed…
In this historical background, we get to know Lina and her family. Lina is only fifteen and is like any girl of her age… until she is dragged by the secret police and sent to Siberia. What did she do to deserve such inhuman treatment? Like many others, nothing, but she is considered to be a threat for the government and so she need to disappear.
The scenes describing the behaviour of the secret police and the horrors lived by the prisoners are rather violent. Full of details, nothing is hidden or weakened. More than once, I could actually feel the characters’ fear in front of the guards. However, in my opinion, Between shades of gray is a message of hope and love and not only a dark novel about the horrors of deportation.
Lina is a moving character and I grew attached to her in the first few pages already. I liked the fact that she is an ordinary girl, apart from her gift for drawing. However, we will quickly understand that she is also extremely strong and that only by remaining herself she can hope to survive. The other characters are also well portrayed, particularly her brother and mother but also the people forced to share the cattle car with them and later on work on the labour camp.
Although it is fiction, we can see that Ruta Sepetys did a great job of research about Lithuania, Siberia, labour camps and deportation. The feelings described are extremely moving and seemed very realistic to me. How can we not be moved by such horrors? And how can we not admire the courage showed by these people? I tried to imagine how I would react if I were in their situation but try as I might, I couldn’t. What is amazing is the ways they find to survive, to keep a glimmer of hope and try and be happy. Of course, they cannot find happiness in this case, but their memories and the way they help each other is extraordinary.
Mixed with the main story, we have various flashbacks which I particularly enjoy for two reasons. First of all, they show a great contrast between how Lithuania was and the present of the story. We see Lina’s happy childhood, her teenager’s concerns and her dreams. And we understand how, in one night, everything can change. The second reason is connected to the point of view in which the story is told. Lina is giving an account of what happens and as she is a young girl, she does not understand everything about politics. Also, there are secrets kept from her in order to protect her. The flashbacks are useful because they enable us to discover the situation little by little, at the same time as Lina.
The writing style also matches the point of view: it is simple, without too many details, just like a teenager’s diary. Yet, it is extremely agreeable to read and you will not even notice as you go through the pages. Drawn by Lina’s desire to live and by her dreams, you will discover how the story unfolds for her and her family. But is there really an end to such horrors?
Between shades of gray is a novel full of emotion. Although it is fiction, it gives us a good insight into the situation of Lithuania during WWII and into deportation. The characters are full of personality and their kindness can only be admired. They dream, they fight, they hope for their life to become normal again. But is it possible after such horrors? And is it possible to survive in such hostile environment? This book made me realise more than ever before how lucky I was to be born in a safe country and era.