Germany was finally telling people what they should have said months ago. Run for your lives.
Salt to the Sea follows a group of characters in the harsh winter of 1945, travelling across what was once Prussia in order to secure passage on boats which will take them to safer lands. In the group there are Germans, a Lithuanian and a Polish girl attempting to hide more than just her nationality. Among the Germans is a young man, who would have been expected to be on the front, fighting for his country, but instead he carries papers containing a very important mission. The old shoemaker can read people by their shoes, and he’s sure the young German is hiding something.
Away from the group there is also the viewpoint of a soldier already positioned on the Wilhelm Gustloff. I did wonder if Alfred was just writing his letters in his head. He has an inflated sense of self-importance and there’s a sense that Hannelore doesn’t return his affections. Add to that writing letters in dangerous situations doesn’t quite add up. He’s not exactly a sympathetic character but there’s still a feeling that the war made him this way.
Florian and Alfred are contrasting characters; one who knows what those in charge are doing is wrong, and one who is completely behind Hitler. The story shows the horrors of war not only through the almost casual loss of life seen again and again, but also through Emilia’s story. And what our narrators share in common is the awful truth that so many children were separated from their families, left to grow up far too young and fend for themselves.
The white snow covered the dark truth. Pressed white linen over a scarred table, a crisp clean sheet over a stained mattress.
The loss of the Wilhelm Gustloff is one of the largest maritime tragedies in history. We hear so much about the Titanic but so many more lives were lost, and at the hands of humans rather than by accident. And many of those of board were children. I am a bit disappointed that the marketing is so heavily focused on the fate of the ship, as it did mean I was waiting for the part on the ship to happen for most of the book. It is much more centred on their journey to get to the ship, the desperation to get on board and, of course, what brought them to this place and time.
The voices could have been more distinct. I always knew when Alfred was narrating but the others tended to merge together a little, and I had to check who was narrating on several occasions. The narrator is listed at the top of each chapter, but when I’m absorbed in the story, I don’t always read these.
What had human beings become? Did war make us evil or just activate an evil already lurking within us?
The story also incorporates one of the mysteries of WWII; the Amber Room. It was a lavishly decorated chamber within a Russian palace, heavy with gold and amber. It was also high on the list of Hitler’s most wanted art acquisitions and went missing during the war. Some suggest it could have been on the Wilhelm Gustloff…
Salt to the Sea is published by Puffin and will be available in paperback and ebook editions from 4th February 2016. Thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy for review via NetGalley.
Goodreads | Amazon | Waterstones | Hive | Wordery
Disclosure: I received a copy of this book free of charge for review purposes only. Receipt of a book does not guarantee a review or endorsement. My reviews are my honest opinion and are not biased for the purpose of personal gain.