A Million Shades of Grey is a million miles away from the type of books I usually pick up. Set during the Vietnam War, it's the coming of age story of a young boy from the Rhade tribe who also happens to be an elephant handler. I wasn't initially blown away by the premise but I was mildly intrigued by the prospect of reading about a life so different from my own. I'm British, and the Vietnam War is something that I've only really encountered in American movies or seen alluded to in reruns of The Wonder Years. Reading A Million Shades of Grey is the first time I've gotten to know a Vietnamese protagonist and seen how this war might have felt from the point of view of those who lived through it on their own soil.
Y'Tin's story starts slowly, as Kadohata gently introduces us to the boy's life, his family, and the way that they live. She gives us moving insights into how the presence of the US military affected the lives of the Rhade; the trust that Y'Tin's family have for the Americans, the bravery that his father shows in assisting on their missions, and the way that US slang creeps into Y'Tin's own speech. We also learn about Y'Tin's love for the village's elephants, and his determination to become an elephant handler. It's slow going in places, but this is the calm before the storm.
Though the novel starts slowly, it really packs a punch in its portrayal of the shattering of this tenuous safety; when the narrative shifts forward in time to what happens after the US military pull out of Vietnam and Y'Tin's village are left to face the Viet Cong alone. When the village is taken in an enemy attack, the Rhade men are taken captive and forced to dig a great pit in the village graveyard. Y'Tin realises what this means, and manages to flee with his best friend into the jungle, where he is reunited with his precious elephant, Lady, and embarks on a journey that sees him making heartbreaking decisions and ultimately becoming a man. It's a story of what it takes to survive, to love unconditionally, and to forgive.
In the UK this book is aimed at readers aged ten and upwards, and I think that A Million Shades of Grey has the potential to touch readers of all ages. Though readers much younger than ten might not be ready for the vocabulary and the themes of war, beyond that it's the type of book that defies age categorisation. The language is elegant, and Kadohata has incoporated the kind of unobtrusive symbolism that you can ponder as much or as little as you wish. Although set in such a different time and place from most of our own lives, Y'Tin's journey is a universal one. This story is moving, thought-provoking, and beautifully told.