Winter, 1945. Four teenagers. Four secrets.
Each one born of a different homeland; each one hunted, and haunted, by tragedy, lies…and war.
As thousands of desperate refugees flock to the coast in the midst of a Soviet advance, four paths converge, vying for passage aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that promises safety and freedom.
Yet not all promises can be kept.
The novel is split between four points of view. Alfred, a young Nazi soldier, is actually the most immature of the group. Despite his position, his point of view is infused with a light hearted humour which is only broken occasionally by the realities of war. It’s only about half way through the novel that you realize the boy is either a budding psychopath or slightly deranged.
Joana is a medical professional who uses her fine tuned skills to aid her fellow refugees in their escape from their war torn country. Florian is a young man in possession of a dangerous artifact and Emilia is a pregnant teenager with a heartbreaking past. All of them have secrets. Secrets that have torn their lives apart even before the war swept through Europe. Together these four characters depict the little known tragedies that Lithuanian refugees faced.
However, despite the fact that Sepetys endeavours to evoke a tragedy that has remained obscured by history, to great success, I remain unmoved by her narrative. The characters felt superficial and fragmented, due in part to the short chapters of only a couple of pages in length. None of them were able to evoke more than a fledgling of pity from me. Despite the absolutely horrific circumstances they found themselves in I flipped through page after page with little more than a drawn out sigh.
The ending is very anticlimactic, the little known tragedy is at once horrifying and inevitable but I remained almost completely disconnected from it. This is in part due to the completely toneless narration of the four main characters. Historical fiction has the dual power to both move us and inform us, and while I think Sepetys managed the later I am disappointed by how little I was invested in the characters.