Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Review: In Darkness by Nick Lake

In One Line: Past meets present in this heartbreaking story set in Haiti.
Genre: Serious stuff
The Gist:
On Tuesday 12th January 2010 an earthquake devastated the island of Haiti. Shorty is fifteen, trapped beneath the rubble of a collapsed hospital, and desperate to survive. As he finds himself slowly dying in the darkness, he recalls his life growing up in what has been referred to as one of the most dangerous places on earth. His father was killed before his eyes and his twin sister kidnapped, and seeking revenge, Shorty finds himself embroiled in the world of gang warfare. 
Running parallel to this modern day story is that of the Haitian revolutionary Toussaint l’Ouverture, a former slave who came to be the leader of his people in the late eighteenth century. Despite a distance between them of over two hundred years, the lives of Toussaint and Shorty, with the help of some mystical and ancient voudou, become entwined.
The Cover:
This is a bright and bold cover that ultimately doesn’t detract from the story, which is perfect as I don’t think this is a book that wants to be sold by cover alone. Some books you grab from the shelves because the cover compels you - with this book I want it to be the opposite. I want people to talk about this book, to tell their friends about this book, so that the cover doesn’t even matter. You just have to read it no matter what image is on the front. And I think the publishers understand this too - presenting an image that’s all about symbol and colour. 
Why You’ll Love This Book:
  • I have a theory that there are two main types of reader - those who prefer style, and those who prefer plot. The former is gripped by the power of words and all the delicious ways they can be arranged on a page, while the latter is a sucker for twists, turns and a darn good story. Not to say there isn’t a huge overlap between the two categories, but it seems to me that people tend to be one more than the other. I am a style person. And this is a style book. 
  • Nick Lake writes less sentences, more spells. Paragraphs read like incantations. Reading this book is a magical experience. 
  • Shorty is an honest and compelling protagonist. You are on his side absolutely, even when he reveals the horrible things that he has had to do. His voice is startlingly authentic, at least it seems so to me (I await a young Haitian knocking on my door to tell me I’m wrong). Having met Nick, I know for a fact that he isn’t a Haitian kid from the wrong side of the tracks, so the fact that he is able to write Shorty so convincingly is amazing.
  • Voudou!!! Wouldn’t you know, this isn’t all about sticking pins in dollies?! The sensitivity and understanding of ancient African mysticism that is presented here is wonderful. 
  • Zombies!!! And not the imminent apocalypse kind. The zombi is a big part of voudou culture, and in this book we learn that being a zombi isn’t all about eating brains and starring in Michael Jackson videos. 
  • The range and understanding of historical perspective is thrilling as a reader. Not only do we get a modern day perspective of Haiti through the eyes of Shorty, but we also learn about the formation of the country through the story of Toussaint. 

Why You May Not Love This Book:
  • It’s emotionally heavy-going. I like my trashy guilty pleasure reading too - as most of you already know, but if that’s all you read and you’re quite happy about that, then this isn’t the book for you. This book is wordy and intense, and therefore not for everyone (I think this applies mostly to younger teen readers).
  • Likewise if you’re a reader who needs a thrusting plot to make you turn the page, then you’re going to struggle with this. Shorty is stuck underground throughout the novel, and it’s not hard to find out what happens in the true-life story of Toussaint, so if it’s tension and suspense you’re after, with heady twists and turns, give In Darkness a miss.
  • I found it hard to adjust to the Toussaint story in the beginning. Shorty’s story is told with such pace and drama that I found myself missing it when I was faced with a Toussaint chapter. But this went away as the two stories started to line up and entwine. 
  • This book is being published in both the adult and the YA sections in book shops (the covers differ only by the colours used), so if you are a slightly sensitive younger reader, be aware of violence and adult language throughout.

The Hypersomnia Test:
Alas, it didn’t pass. Mostly because I had to put the book down every now and again as it was disturbing to read in places. It takes an emotional commitment to read this book, and when I was feeling rather sleepy on the tube or lazy in the staff room at work, sometimes it was just easier to have a nap or pick up a magazine! 
Final Verdict:
This book is an astounding feat and truly incredible. It is honest and sincere, and I dare any of you not to get to the end and not feel truly lucky to live where we do, in a part of the world that sees relative peace. At the same time I was left with an ache to Do Something important, but I’m not sure what that is. Having met the author a few times, what I’m most struck with is how different the voice in the novel is from his actual voice. I would never expected this type of novel to come out of him, and I’m intensely jealous as well as completely in awe all at the same time!
Further Reading:
Beloved by Toni Morrison
In the Sea There Are Crocodiles by Fabio Geda
Refugee Boy by Benjamin Zephaniah. 

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