BookBrowse Reviews I Must Betray You by Ruta Sepetys

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I Must Betray You

by Ruta Sepetys

I Must Betray You by Ruta Sepetys X
I Must Betray You by Ruta Sepetys
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2022, 336 pages

    May 2023, 400 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Jordan Lynch
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About this Book



In this young adult novel, communist Romania is illuminated through the perspective of a 17-year-old blackmailed into becoming an informant for the government.

Ruta Sepetys is known for writing young adult fiction about underrepresented history — some of the darkest yet least-recognized events. I Must Betray You is set in Romania in 1989 and explores the lives of those struggling under the fist of the communist regime. Told from the point of view of 17-year-old Cristian Florescu, this story provides a glimpse into a time and place many of us can't imagine and shows what ordinary people can do when they stand together.

The world in which Cristian lives is a dark one — both literally and figuratively. Electricity is only provided sporadically, regardless of the time of day or the weather outside. Food and other necessities are purchased after standing in lines for hours, or on the black market. The latter option comes with the risk of being reported to the Securitate, the country's secret police, by an informer, and being on the Securitate's radar could cost you your life. Blackmailed into becoming an informer, Cristian struggles to reconcile his guilt at betraying his loved ones and his fear of punishment if he fails to provide information. Worse yet is the prospect of being found out by his bunu (grandfather), who is an outspoken critic of communism. Sepetys vividly captures the atrocities the Romanian people suffered — Bunu declares their current circumstances worse than those endured during World War II — and creates a sense of despair that will make readers feel as if they're mired in hopelessness alongside the protagonist.

But as Cristian learns about other Eastern European countries fighting against communist rule, this sense of hopelessness begins to lift. One of the most significant results is the depth of characterization. For the first half of the book, the fear of the Securitate keeps anyone from knowing too much about anyone else. Asking questions is seen as suspicious, and it's difficult to build trust when anyone could be informing on you. Familial relationships are not immune to this lack of trust, as evidenced by the secrets and anxiety between Cristian, his parents and his sister. However, as the Revolutions of 1989 unfold across Eastern Europe, people begin to fight against the system, both by refusing to inform on one another and by rebelling against the state. They also begin opening up to one another, sharing thoughts and feelings that make them, for the first time, feel like real people. The initial lack of development may seem like a flaw, but it's intentional. Sepetys writes the characters at the level to which they would have known each other under the circumstances, and as the circumstances change, so do their relationships.

As revolution rages, Cristian and his loved ones find themselves fighting for their lives. Some are ready to do whatever it takes to throw off communist rule, while others are more hesitant, afraid of what may happen if the revolution fails. For Cristian, the actions of his friends and other youths demonstrate how determined his generation is to be free, while the actions of his family reveal who he can — and can't — trust. These truths shape Cristian's view of himself, his family and his country, and in the novel's epilogue, he emerges as a very different man. Romanian society is different as well; the end of the secret police force allows for the release of citizens' files, which reveal the extent of their lack of privacy and the Securitate's control. Included after the epilogue are archival photographs of people, events and daily life in communist Romania, along with a detailed author's note about the revolution and Sepetys's writing process. These additions provide a welcome visual accompaniment to Cristian's story and drive home the stark reality of life in Romania at the time.

In an interview with the New York Times, Sepetys says that she wanted to show the courage of Romania's citizens, particularly the youth, in rising up against communism. I Must Betray You does exactly that. Cristian is a conflicted yet courageous narrator, and his experiences, unrelatable to most of us, provide an unflinching glimpse into life under Romania's communist regime and the bravery of those who fought against it. Sepetys once again shares a little-known piece of the past in a book that will inspire readers to learn more about Romania, its people and its history.

Reviewed by Jordan Lynch

This review first ran in the March 16, 2022 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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Beyond the Book:
  Nicolae Ceauşescu (1918-1989)


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