Bucharest, the capitol of Romania, 1989. Christian Florescu is a discontented teenager living under the harsh and oppressive dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu where there is little food, little hope for a future, and 1 of every 50 people is an informer ready to turn you in for the slightest infraction. He dreams of becoming a writer, but his country has rules against free speech; a person could be imprisoned, tortured, even killed for speaking their mind in I Must Betray You by Ruta Sepetys.
Christian’s discontentment turns to dread when he is approached by the Securitate, Romania’s secret government spy ring, and is forced to become the thing he despises most: an informer. Unwilling to become a traitor to his own people, Christian resolves to use the Securitate against themselves and be a double agent. As clever as he is, he soon learns there is so much more to this pervasive web of deception than he could ever imagine.
Ruta Sepetys often writes historical fiction based in places and times largely forgotten by common historical memory. Her diligent, honest account of a fictional life set in a real nightmare comes to us at a unique time. Sepetys tells a story of a society where civilians live every day under constant surveillance not just from the government, but from their fellow citizens. Families cannot speak too loudly in their own homes not just for fear that it’s bugged, but that their parent or sibling is an informer. This phenomenon seems Orwellian, like something that can only be found in fiction, but have you ever been talking to a friend about desperately wanting an air fryer for you new apartment and then, suddenly, you can’t stop seeing adds for air fryers? Here and now, we live in a world of surveillance. So far, it’s benign enough – after all, you do want an air fryer – but for how long will this benevolence last?
Despite Christian’s knowledge that he is surrounded by those who could betray him, he still strives to strengthen the relationships he holds dear. It’s his unwillingness to sacrifice these relationships that both condemn him to his fate and save him from it. I Must Betray You does not shy away from the moral discrepancies that occur when we are forced to operate in a society of secrecy and deceit. Yet, it reminds us that, despite the very real risk that accompanies trust, we cannot survive alone.