This book has four separate POV characters:
Joana: a young, Lithuanian woman with some medical training.
Emilia: a young Polish woman whose story is heart-breaking.
Florian: a young German man with training as an art restorer.
Alfred: a young German man who is unremittingly loathsome.
Let me start by saying that I did like this book, but I didn't fall in love with it the way I loved Elizabeth Wein's Code Name Verity, or even Rose Under Fire. I also preferred Sepety's non-war book, set in 1950's New Orleans, Out of the Easy. That isn't to say that this is a bad book, though.
“The shoes always tell the story,” said the shoe poet. “Not always,” I countered. “Yes, always. Your boots, they are expensive, well made. That tells me that you come from a wealthy family. But the style is one made for an older woman. That tells me they probably belonged to your mother. A mother sacrificed her boots for her daughter. That tells me you are loved, my dear. And your mother is not here, so that tells me that you are sad, my dear. The shoes tell the story.”
I struggled a bit with the format of the book - the constantly shifting POV is handled through very short chapters. Especially at the beginning, it felt disjointed to me, and getting to know the characters was more difficult because information was imparted in short snippets. I also really hated reading Alfred's chapters - I'm not sure that the book wouldn't have been better without him in it, to be honest. There is one significant character who dies in the middle of the book, and I think it would have been really effective to give that character a POV, that disappears from the book when she does.
“You want to know something about me?” I asked. I stared at his tired face. He waited, eyelids beginning to droop. They fluttered closed and his fingers softly released my wrist. I watched him breathe for a while, his identity papers still tucked under his torso. He wanted to know something about me. I leaned over and put my mouth to his ear. It was barely a whisper. “I’m a murderer.
At about the midpoint, though, the book really did start to coalesce for me, and I became totally engaged. I've given it an overall rating of 4 stars - but in reality, I'd give the first 50% 3 stars, and the last 50% 5 stars. I loved the ending, although it was a little bit abrupt.
On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland from the west. On September 17, 1939, Russia invaded Poland from the east. I remembered these dates. Two warring nations gripped Poland like girls fighting over a doll. One held the leg, the other the arm. They pulled so hard that one day, the head popped off.
In spite of some of what I see as faults, the Ruta Sepetys's writing is spare and beautiful. She makes clear choices, and I get the feeling, as a reader, that she has consciously placed each word in its location within the story, and even, on the physical page of the book. There are four chapters in a row that are a single sentence long.
Joana Vilkas, your daughter, your sister. She is salt to the sea. We floated in the blackness, bobbing along the waves. A woman in the boat announced the time every thirty minutes. There was no more splashing in the water, only the quiet echoes of crying. We sat, snow falling from an infinite sky..
I've not yet read Between Shades of Gray - I own it, but it's never migrated to the top of the TBR. These war books take a lot out of me (I still haven't read Black Dove, White Raven because Code Name Verity about killed me, and Rose Under Fire was pretty much a repeat of that experience), so I'm not ready for it yet. But I will.