Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

13th Jun 2011

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Even after their release, the detainees were forbidden to speak of their ordeal. Some buried their journals and drawings on Baltic soil, though they risked a death sentence if discovered by the KGB.

Drawing on first-hand accounts, Sepetys recreated their experiences in fiction. Her narrator is fifteen-year-old Lina, who, along with her mother and younger brother, is separated from her father, a professor, and sent to a labour camp in Siberia in 1941.

The first part of the novel recounts their gruelling train journey, and the title, Thieves and Prostitutes, refers to the label on their truck. The passengers are sold to a ‘kolkhoz’ or collective farm in Russia, where they are ordered to sign papers agreeing to a 25-year sentence. Lina’s family refuse to consent, and are banished to the Arctic wasteland.

Between Shades of Gray is tightly written and claustrophobic. The characters are trapped in a living hell, with little chance of escape. Lina imagines that Germany will liberate her country, not knowing that the Nazis have their own deadly agenda. When a US ship lands, Lina’s hopes are raised again – but America was Russia’s ally at the time.

Nonetheless, Lina searches for truth amid the bleakness of her daily existence – hence the title, ‘between shades of gray’. She is an artist, inspired by Edvard Munch, and secretly records events in a sketch book. Sepetys evokes Lina’s inner life through a series of flashbacks to a happier time.

As the story develops, Lina’s view of the people around her becomes more nuanced. The supporting characters are well-drawn: Mr Stalas, a cynic with a past; Kretzsky, the dour Russian guard; and Janina, a traumatised little girl who talks to her dead doll. One of these characters was a real person: Dr Samodurov, who saved many prisoners’ lives. His fate is unknown.

The novel is pitched at younger readers, retelling a grim moment in history through the innocent eyes of an adolescent girl. Sofi Oksanen depicted neighbouring Estonia during the same period in her 2008 novel, Purge.

Older readers, already familiar with the period, may find Between Shades of Gray a little formulaic, but it tackles a harrowing subject with care and integrity.

Published by last week by Penguin, you can buy it in paperback for £4.89 or on Kindle for £3.49.

Rating: 3/5

Recommended for: Young adult readers and fans of historical fiction.

Other recommended reading: Saving Rafael by Leslie Wilson; The Vanishing of Katharina Linden by Helen Grant; What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell.

Tara Hanks