Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Book review: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

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.

This book turned me into a bit of a mess, I have not cried this much since I first saw Atonement, which is saying a lot because that movie made me literally sob for about an hour.  For a few days after reading this book (and if I am honest as I am writing this review) just thinking about it made me misty eyed.  

It feels almost wrong to say that I loved this book given what it is about, but I did, I loved it.  It is a beautiful book that has been stunningly written.  It is instantly gripping, utterly heart-breaking and extremely powerful.  

It is easy to go overboard with books about this subject and go too far, it is also easy to tread too lightly and not write what really happened for fear of offending and upsetting people.  Sepetys gets it just right for her target audience in this, she has treated this subject with the respect it deserves whilst managing to write characters that make me laugh and cry and who you hate and love. 

I loved Lina, I loved how she grew, how she found her strength and resolve.  She was not always likable, she was not perfect, she sometimes said and did the wrong thing, but in her situation who wouldn’t.  

All of the characters were wonderfully developed with individual personalities and ticks, but none really compared to Lina’s mother, who was a triumph.  I adored her and have no idea how she handled herself with such dignity, courage and grace during this book.  Her compassion and care not just for her children but for all those around her was inspiring and genuinely touching.  She is the best YA parent I think I have ever come across.  

Even now I have tears in my eyes, why? I think it is because I am angry.  I am a 27 year old Englishwoman, who had to sit through hour after hour of history classes as I was growing up, and not once in all those hours was this subject bought up.  Hundreds and hundreds of not only Lithuanians but other former soviet citizens died and suffered for years at the hands of Stalin and I never knew, and my mother never knew, or my father, my best friend or my boss.  Somehow these people’s stories have gone missing from the pages of history, so please, please read this book and make your mother read it, and your father, your best friend and your boss. 

Between Shades of Gray is a book I will never forget, it was deeply moving and majestically written.   It wasn’t perfect I didn’t like the ending and felt it was rushed, but it doesn’t matter to me.  Anything that can have this kind of effect on me deserves 5 stars.  

5 stars

 Published June 9th 2011 by Penguin Books.  A free copy was provided for review. Image courtesy of Goodreads

Review by Kate Phillips


  1. YES! This book was horrible and beautiful at the same time. The writing felt both thoughtful and effortless, which is an impossible feat to accomplish. This still haunts my thoughts months after reading it.

  2. What a great review. I know it can seem odd to love a book with such heavy subject matter, but they are often times some of my favorite reads. I love a book that will stay with me. As readers of so many books, saying that it is memorable is quite a compliment on its own. Thank you for your great review.

  3. I didn't love, love, love this book, but I just read an ARC of Sepetys' new book (which is totally different from SHADES OF GREY) and I ADORE it. It's excellent.

  4. I really loved this book too especially because it highlighted a lesser known historical time (American schools focus WAY more on American history than anything else). And the writing was just awesome!


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