Tuesday, 5 February 2013

In Darkness - M's review

In Darkness by Nick Lake

“...born in blood and darkness, and that’s how he’ll die....”
In Darkness has been longlisted for the CILIP Carnegie 2013 medal. This review considers some of the judging criteria. This novel has recently won the Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature 2013 (US based award).

In Darkness is the story of Shorty, a fifteen year old slum gang member who’s been shot. With the events leading up to this forming the main plot, in just over 300 pages, author Nick Lake manages to pack a rich and accessible history of Haiti into a novel that is both absorbing and arouses curiosity. It draws heavily on historical events and is a wonderful novel.

In Darkness by Nick Lake
The chapters alternate between Now and Then which are starkly different and add an intriguing complexity to the story which mixes up contemporary issues with history and voodoo zombie magic. Now is narrated by Shorty, a 15 year old boy in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. It’s 2010 and he is trapped in a coffin-sized darkness after the walls of the hospital he was in collapsed due to an earthquake. Then is set in about the 1790s and is about a slave, Touissant L’Ouverture who leads a rebellion that sets in motion the end of slavery. These chapters are narrated in the third person.
The main story is about the intertwining of gangs and politics in the life of the slum, Site Soley (a real place), drawing upon the rivalry between Aristide’s group, Route 9 and Boston, the rebels. At first you wonder how Now and Then are linked. But quite quickly, you realise that there are similarities between Shorty and Touissant: they both have a twin sister, both have been told by their houngan (a male priest) they only have half a soul that needs to be filled, and both of them are deliberating over the merits, demerits and complexities of group belonging, and liberty versus revenge. The author provides lots of clues to what the links are and these alone will get you thinking about spirituality and faith.

Like Call Down Thunder, In Darkness provides a bleak view into the complex and connected lives of politicised communities that depend on organised drug and crime. In Darkness offers a much richer and broader picture, and is aimed at an older audience.

The book jacket warns of language and violence.  With regards language, yes there’s plenty of swearing. But, Shorty’s narration particularly, also slips in and out of French chants, a bit of Creole, and his slum dialect makes for a slightly challenging use of language.

With violence, the body count is high and the killing is often extensively graphic. I skipped many paragraphs, and even a couple of pages at a time. This doesn’t detract from the story though. Shying from graphic violence is typical for me, but what is important to me is the big difference between violence that is integral to the story and violence which is simply gratuitous. The violence in In Darkness is integral to Haiti’s story (just as it is in Cambodia’s Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick).

Genrewise, this is a mix of contemporary, historical and maybe even paranormal as it blends the past and the present through voudou spirits and places a well grounded spin on the topic of zombies.

In Darkness touches upon all sorts of topics and themes with a depth that got me thinking about many things: slavery, religion, the afterlife, international peacekeeping, Haiti, Bonaparte, war, belief, crime, rap music, and slums.

Something I really liked about this novel was that I continually felt like I was learning and felt a pressing need to explore (or at least google) which bits were fact and which were fiction (Nick Lake provides a brief authorial and historical note at the end of the novel which clears some of this up). It weaves in some real-life extracts from Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s speeches.

On a negative note, some of the links between Shorty and Touissant are driven home too frequently and the ‘in darkness’ metaphor might be slightly over-extended too (although this may help to make the story accessible to more readers). But, for me, the story and other elements that make up the novel overrode these slight niggles.
I think In Darkness is an outstanding read both for its content and reading enjoyment. It is pageturning yet properly fascinating at the same time and will appeal to teens and adults alike. I’ll be recommending it for years.

Publication details:
January 2012, Bloomsbury, London, hardback

This copy: received from the publisher for reviewing the Carnegie longlist (and this one’s not going anywhere: it’s signed!)


  1. I'll include this review in my World Wednesday Round Up. Thanks for posting.

    1. Thank you; that sounds interesting; I'll stop by to find out more.

  2. I've only skimmed your review because based on your recommendation, I picked this book up recently from the library! Hoping to read it very soon :)


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