Last week I mentioned I was surprised to realize how few books I’ve read about the Netherlands, novels set in the country or anything by Dutch authors. The same thing could also be said for Romania. Back in 2012 I read Haya Leah Molnar’s 2010 memoir Under a Red Sky: Memoir of a Childhood in Communist Romania and in 2018 it was 2016 Robert Kaplan’s In Europe’s Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond. Then a year later in 2019 it was Paul Bailey’s 2014 novel The Prince’s Boy. But despite my interest in Eastern Europe those are the only books about, or novels set in Romania I’ve featured on my blog.
Once I learned Ruta Sepetys￼, the Lithuanian-America author of the best-selling novel Salt to the Sea had just written a novel set in Romania during the waning months of Communist rule I went searching for it on Overdrive and placed a hold on I Must Betray You. Last week out of the blue a copy became available and after downloading it to my Kindle I burned through Sepetys￼’s 2022 historical novel in no time.
By 1989 Romania had become a hell-hole, far worse than any of its Communist neighbors. In hopes of paying off the country’s national debt dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu’s boosted exports of foodstuffs and fuel, leaving the population cold, malnourished and forced to wait in endless lines for handfuls of moldy produce or withered soup bones. Even in the capital Bucharest evening power outages were the norm, not the exception as residents navigated a decaying, darkened city where newborns froze to death in unpowered incubators and hungry feral dogs roamed the streets like some apocalyptic scene by Hieronymus Bosch. The oppressive regime ruled with an iron hand, aided by thousands of informants, ordinary citizens coerced into spying on their co-workers, neighbors and even family members.
And yet, in the midst of all of this things are looking up for Christian, the novel’s young protagonist. The pretty neighbor girl he’s secretly been crushing on has suddenly taken a liking to him, much to his pleasant surprise. Through his mother, who’s employed as a housekeeper for the American embassy, he’s recently made friends with the Ambassador’s teenage son. While the regime strongly discourages such relationships with foreigners it soon opens to Christian a much wider world of pop culture, bountiful consumer goods and notions of previously unimaginable personal freedom.
Then, one day at school he’s forced to meet with a member of Romania’s dreaded Securitate. Accused of illegal commercial activity with the Ambassador’s son he coerces Christian into serving as an informant, offering in return to supply his sick uncle with life-saving drugs. But as horrible as the situation is, what disturbs Christian the most is the sudden realization someone within his inner circle is an informer. But who?
Considered a “crossover” novelist since her books appeal to both teens and adults, Sepetys￼’s well-crafted novel is fast-paced and exciting with plenty of heart. I Must Betray You is easily one of the best novels I’ve read this year. Please consider it highly recommended.