Thursday, September 29, 2011

Between Shades of Gray

Have you ever wondered what a human life is worth? That morning, my brother's was worth a pocket watch. 
Lina is just like any other fifteen-year-old Lithuanian girl in 1941. She paints, she draws, she gets crushes on boys. Until one night when Soviet officers barge into her home, tearing her family from the comfortable life they've known. Separated from her father, forced onto a crowded and dirty train car, Lina, her mother, and her young brother slowly make their way north, crossing the Arctic Circle, to a work camp in the coldest reaches of Siberia. Here they are forced, under Stalin's orders, to dig for beets and fight for their lives under the cruelest of conditions. 
Lina finds solace in her art, meticulously - and at great risk - documenting events by drawing, hoping these messages will make their way to her father's prison camp to let him know they are still alive. It is a long and harrowing journey, spanning years and covering 6,500 miles, but it is through incredible strength, love, and hope that Lina ultimately survives.Between Shades of Gray is a novel that will steal your breath and capture your heart.

I'm going to be very blunt right now: I would have enjoyed this a lot more if I had read this before The Book Thief.
Now don't take that statement the wrong way.  I did think this was a good book, especially, for a debut. But I just didn't find it as amazing as most others seemed to.

The writing was pretty decent.  For a debut author, it wasn't bad at all--for the most part, it flowed very well, and didn't use any sort of phrasing that left me scratching my head or making weird faces.
My big problem was the dialogue.  The dialogue seemed very awkward and unrealistic to me.  I tried to convince myself that it was because they were in a different time period, and using a different language, but . . . excuse me for this, but I'm going to compare it to The Book Thief. That was set in the same time period, and while the language they spoke wasn't the same, they, too, were speaking a different language, and I never found that dialogue awkward whatsoever.  In Between Shades of Gray, I would sometimes say a line or two out loud and realize just how incredibly odd it sounded.  Some of the lines were beautiful, but they're just not something a human would say.
Aside from that, there were a few typos, but nothing too terrible.  I did like the writing, the dialogue just bothered me.

I had mixed feelings about Sepetys's characters.
On the one hand, I think it's beautiful how she showed their strength and determination and hope even under the harshest of circumstances.  All these characters were truly krasivaya(I'll let you find out what that means for yourself).  I loved reading about that, even when such ugly things happened.
But--ironically, considering the title--I felt most of the characters were too black and white. Too good or too bad.  Lina's mom, for example.  Her mom was a lovely woman, but I found it hard to truly love her because she seemed too good to be true, to me.  I felt like she never slipped up, like she was always the best person around. And while I realize there are some really amazing people out there, none of them are perfect.
In contrast, you have the NKVD. Save for Kretzky(whom I will mention later), they were mostly portrayed as pure evil.  While I can see how one of the deportees would see them as such, Kretzky can't have been the only one with more to him than that.  There had to be at least some of them with decency left inside.
Even, on a lesser scale, the bald man. I think she was trying to create one of those characters that you think you're gonna hate but you end up loving or liking them in the end because of some redeeming qualities, but . . . I never got that. He did a few decent things, but he said too many ridiculously cruel things for me to ever like him, at all.
Lina, as a narrator, was good.  I liked how she preserved their story through art and writing and how much she cared about her family. But same as with her mother, I  never loved her. I just never fully connected.
Kretzky was the only character I really connected with and liked. I think he was the most complex, well-developed character, and I would've liked to see even more of him.
Also, a nitpick here--how some of the characters were referred to bothered me.  The majority of the characters were referred to be phrases, like "the man who wound his watch" or "the grumpy woman."  After being in such close quarters with these people for over a year, I'd think they'd learn one another's names.  And then there are some whose names she learned later on, like "the little girl with the dolly," whose name was Janina, and so she referred to her as Janina from then on. Then why, after learning the bald man's name, did she not call him that?  It's a pretty small nitpick, but it bugged me.
Overall, Sepetys's characters were good, but I never fully connected.

First off, let me say that I think it's amazing Sepetys tackled the story of these poor people, which has been mostly hidden from us for decades.  If I'm being honest here, I had no idea what Stalin had done to these people until I read this book, and I think it's great that by writing this, she's finally spreading this story.
This is not a pretty story.  People die, gruesomely. People get beaten to the ground and treated like filth. People get disease. People get their modesty stripped away. People starve.
But the sad fact is, this really happened.  This happened to millions of people in the Baltic regions. And while what happened to them was terrifying, disgusting, unbelievable, as I mentioned before, it was very uplifting to see how they persevered even in the worst of times.
However, while the fact that this is all based on true stories makes this a very powerful book, I did have some nitpicks. Yes, more nitpicks.
The flashbacks. This bothered me less as the story went on and I saw that some of them were relevant to the current story, and I know it helped build up sympathy for her papa, so we could feel her sadness and anxiety along with Lina, but it bothered me when I'd be reading something and suddenly we're in a flashback. The flashbacks were never completely random--they always related to what was happening at that time in the story--but I just think some of them were unnecessary.
Andrius and Lina's romance. I can't say I ever felt that.  I didn't feel like there was a whole lot of build-up, and for a good while either Lina hated Andrius or Andrius hated Lina, and then it was just like boom, they're kissing, boom, they love each other, etc.  And then he was gone for the last, like, seventy pages.  I'm not saying that she shouldn't have included their romance--I think it's sort of nice to realize that some of the deportees found love in all that darkness. I just wish she could've developed it a bit better.
Sometimes, and this is sort of related to what I just said, I felt like there wasn't enough foreshadowing for things.  I felt like they just fell upon us, sitting here, unaware.  I can't name any specific times without giving some spoilers, but that just bothered me a bit.
Last nitpick(I promise): the ending. On the one hand, the ending was beautiful. It really was. But on the other hand, I would've liked a little bit more closure.  While some might argue that it's better as it is, I would've at least liked to know what happened to Jonas and her papa, if not some of the other more prominent characters who survived.  
But in the end, I can do nothing but congratulate Sepetys on this plot. For her debut novel, she tackled an incredibly difficult, powerful subject, and she did it well.

Now, I realize I've had a lot of nitpicks.  But I'm typically very harsh with book reviews. The fact that I had a lot of problems does not diminish the fact that, in the end, this is a very moving book.  And because of that, I am giving it four stars.


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