In Darkness – Nick Lake
In darkness I count my blessings like Manman taught me. One: I am alive. Two: there is no two. In the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake, a boy is trapped beneath the rubble of a ruined hospital: thirsty, terrified and alone. 'Shorty' is a child of the slums, a teenage boy who has seen enough violence to last a lifetime, and who has been inexorably drawn into the world of the gangsters who rule Site Soleil: men who dole out money with one hand and death with the other. But Shorty has a secret: a flame of revenge that blazes inside him and a burning wish to find the twin sister he lost five years ago. And he is marked. Marked in a way that links him with Toussaint L'Ouverture, the Haitian rebel who two-hundred years ago led the slave revolt and faced down Napoleon to force the French out of Haiti. As he grows weaker, Shorty relives the journey that took him to the hospital, a bullet wound in his arm. In his visions and memories he hopes to find the strength to survive, and perhaps then Toussaint can find a way to be free.
Review: I always seem to have the same problem with duel-narrative books. I like one storyline more than the other.
In Darkness is about a teenage gang member nicknamed Shorty. After he is shot in the arm, he’s taken to a hospital, but an earthquake causes the hospital to collapse on top of him. While trapped in the rubble, he starts dreaming about Toussaint L'Ouverture, the slave who led a revolt and freed Haiti two-hundred years ago. There seems to be a psychic link between Shorty and Toussaint L'Ouverture. The book flips back and forth between Shorty’s story and Toussaint’s.
I was drawn to this novel because it’s set in Haiti, which isn’t a place that I know very much about. This book is a great introduction to Haiti’s history and present. Even though the book is fiction (mostly), it feels very gritty and real. Shorty is a gangster who committed his first murder at age 12, but he’s still weirdly relatable. He loves his family and is doing whatever it takes to survive in one of the most dangerous slums on Earth.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that this book is gritty. The author isn’t afraid to talk about murder, extreme poverty, gang culture, racism, or drug use. It’s an honest book. Shorty doesn’t hide anything from the reader. He doesn’t even hide some of the disgusting things he has to do to survive while trapped under the collapsed hospital. Sometimes this book made me cringe.
I like historical fiction because it’s (usually) a palatable way to learn history, but I didn’t like Toussaint’s story nearly as much as I liked Shorty’s. Toussaint’s story lacked the depth of Shorty’s. The parts of the book that happened two-hundred years ago didn’t feel as real to me.
I also wondered about this book’s classification as a young adult novel. I’m an adult, and I liked this story, but teenage-me wouldn’t have read this book willingly. It’s denser than most YA novels I’ve read. There are a lot of characters with complicated backstories. There is also a mixture of different languages with no translations, a lot of exposition, a complex nonlinear structure, slow pacing, and not much dialogue. As an adult, I can appreciate the beauty in those things, but teenage-me definitely wouldn’t have had the patience for this book.
If you’re interested in Haiti or unique historical fiction, In Darkness is probably worth checking out.