15 April 2013

Review: In Darkness by Nick Lake

'An evil idea makes bad men of everyone who believes in it.'

"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 Soley; 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 seven years ago..."

First Line: "I am the voice in the dark, calling out for your help."

In Darkness is a violent but careful novel set in Haiti that alternates chapters between 'now' - the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake and 'then' - the late 18th century slave rebellion led by Toussaint l'Ouverture. Both perspectives are dark, intelligent and engaging. It's not a book that you enjoy as it is upsetting and too grounded in atrocities that really happened but it is moving, complex and impressive - I would highly recommend it. (It has a beautiful hardback cover as well).

Why I read it: I read it whilst it was on the Carnegie longlist - it has since been announced as making the shortlist (as I hoped and thought it would).

Who I would recommend it: If you want to be challenged and moved by a story. This is not for the faint-hearted but it is for those who like to be provoked and made to think by what they read.

Shorty is a chimere, or a gangster,  lured into the gang culture after his father is killed and sister taken away when he was a child with promises of revenge and wealth. But now he is buried in a collapsed hospital following the earthquake, trapped in a coffin sized space with no light and no food or water. As he tells us what led to him being in hospital with a gunshot wound he also begins to hallucinate about the slave rebellion in the 1790s. Meanwhile, we hear from Toussaint l'Ouverture, the initially reluctant leader of the rebellion who begins to dream about a boy in the future and a shattered Haiti. I thought that Lake managed a really delicate balance linking the two characters - I found there were just enough mentions of this link for it to be quite lovely rather than heavy-handed.

Another balance I thought Lake managed cleverly was regarding the voodoo elements and whether it has any real power or that its power is based in the belief of it  - and whether it matters where the power comes from if it still influences people. Our characters believe in it to different levels but it is never portrayed as silly and childish, or as fact, and I liked the way we're left to decide what is real and what isn't (this weirdly reminded me of The Moth Diaires, another is it supernatural or not book although very different).

There is quite a lot of violence and swearing in this book which has lead to comments about audience and appropriateness. Before I come to the issue of audience I just wanted to focus on how wonderfully written I thought it was with very dark moments written in soaring, beautiful language. It is evocative and incredibly moving. Here's one of my favourite quotes,
        "Death will continue... There will be a steady and endless stream of the dead, filling the land under the sea that can never be filled. But this is not sad, this is beautiful. The beauty of this is that when you die there will always be someone waiting, there will always be those you have lost, standing there, the curve of their back and the stance of their feet so familiar. There will always be someone there, saying: We have waited so long. It is so good to see you."

So, on to audience. I have heard several librarians commenting on how unsuitable this is for younger readers and wishing that Lake had toned it down a little - these criticisms seem to stem mainly from it having been included on the Carnegie shortlist and some librarians reticence to give it to Year 7 readers in their shadowing groups. I can totally understand where these librarians are coming from - In Darkness is a challenging and dark novel with some unflinching violence, upsetting scenes and strong language and some younger students will find this upsetting. Having said that, this story couldn't be told without those elements. This is a story based in the history and truth of a country full of problems, corruption and violence and to make this more palatable for readers would do a disservice to that place and to Lake's story. Some books are there to comfort and uplift us, some to challenge and move us and often to do both. Carnegie aims to celebrate the absolute best in children's writing and I think that In Darkness is one of those books and should therefore be on the shortlist. The shortlist always spans quite a range of ages and offers guidance as to the appropriate audience for this. This year's shortlist has books that younger readers will adore, such as Wonder and A Greyhound of a Girl but also books that will engage and enthuse older readers such as this and Maggot Moon. Whilst I am normally happy for most of my students to read what appeals to them, ultimately it is our job as school librarians to know our students and to be able to guide them. I firmly believe shadowing the Carnegie is a worthwhile project for students even if they don't read all of the books. If we know our books and our students then we can ensure that they have an exciting, inspiring and positive reading experience. 


  1. I have this on my kindle to read. I'm really quite interested to read it but I'm also hesitant because of the content...

    1. It is quite shocking at times but it needs to be there. I wouldn't let that stop you reading it - there's a lot more to it than the violence.