Romania 1989: Nicolae Ceaușescu, Romania’s longtime leader, has told the world that Romania is a land of bounty, and the world believes him. But Cristian Florescu, who lives with his parents, sister and grandfather in Romania’s capital city, Bucharest, knows the truth. Gray, lifeless buildings line the streets, and food scarcity, unreliable electricity and constant paranoia are part of daily life under Ceaușescu’s regime.
Cristian is a high school student who dreams of becoming a writer, but the Securitate, Ceaușescu’s secret police, have other plans for him. Called to the principal’s office one day, Cristian is greeted by an imposing member of the Secu. Under threat of blackmail, Cristian agrees to become an informant and to report on the American diplomat whose apartment his mother cleans.
As Cristian begins his double life, he starts to doubt everyone around him, even his closest friends and family. Glimpses of the world outside Romania stir feelings of confusion and curiosity and leave Cristian reeling as he tries to make sense of the contradictory truths he is uncovering about his country. All the while, Romania rushes toward revolution.
Part espionage thriller and part bildungsroman, Ruta Sepetys’ fifth novel, I Must Betray You, focuses on a lesser-known aspect of Cold War history and provides a window into the chilling reality of 1980s Romania, the dictator who fooled the world and the events that led to his downfall.
The novel is a master class in pacing and atmosphere. Much of the book unfolds slowly, creating a foreboding sense of rising tension, until the dam suddenly breaks. Months of caution and paranoia cascade into a frightening series of bloody protests.
As a writer of historical fiction, Sepetys’ greatest strength is her dedication to research. The novel’s diaristic tone and its laser focus on one boy and one country’s story don’t leave much space for the broader context of historical communism and Marxist ideologies within the narrative, though copious endnotes are packed with tales from Sepetys’ research trips across Romania, photos from the period that offer profound visuals and plentiful source notes.
“When we don’t know the full story, sometimes we create one of our own,” Cristian writes in the novel’s final moments. “And that can be dangerous.” I Must Betray You makes its potent message clear: If the truth sets us free, its power comes from how we choose to wield it.