Salt to the Sea (2016) by Ruta Sepetys Review
Salt to the Sea does not know which story to tell. Taking place during the bleak winters of World War II, 1945, the novel follows four teenagers as they flock away in the midst of the Soviet advance, seeking refuge in Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that promises safety and freedom for all passengers aboard. The novel works around through the four perspectives to weave together a tedious journey as the characters, provoked by their past tragedies, try to find hope in the darkest corners of WWII.
The story of the Wilhelm Gustloff is quite fascinating, but the novel itself is not content with just telling this tale of courage and survival. The plot itself is filled with numerous flashbacks, some to develop one’s character but others to just emotionally manipulate the readers. Along with that, the novel reeks with a romance that does not really fall anywhere into the category. There seems to be a lot of setup between the characters, a lot of interpersonal problems and broken relationships told within the main narrative but all the setup does not really contribute much to the ultimate picture. It is really tough to care about the drama between the characters when there are much bigger things at stake.
The novel tells all these stories and it does not really fit together properly. They feel like distractions from what is already a compelling and an original narrative. It may be easy to evoke sympathy for WWII stories, but the emotions in this novel felt forced and out of place. That is because of the disjointed plot, the narrative jumping between too many characters and subplots for what is like one or two pages per chapter. It cannot seem to decide what story it ultimately wants to tell. When there is potential in one’s personal story, the novel weirdly cuts out his/her chapter and moves on to other plots and subplots. The novel tries to be too many stories in one; as a result, the reader is forced to feel for them through their painstaking flashbacks which, in the end, felt like a cheap trick to sell emotion.
Salt to the Sea has a worthy enough goal. Its job is to tell the difficult and painful stories that these characters went through as well as the grave injustices that came along with the historical aspects that needed to be addressed. Unfortunately, the novel did not do a great job doing any of that. It wanted to tell a million things at once, burdening this slice of history with extraneous subplots that take away from the imminence of the main narrative. It feels like the bigger story steers away with every page, the lack of focus causing everything to crumble apart.
Read January 2017