In Darkness (by Nick Lake)

25 02 2013

indarknessIn 2010 Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world, fell victim to a catastrophic natural disaster that affected an inestimable amount of people. With a death toll ranging anywhere between 92,000 and 316,000 people, the Haiti earthquake got the doubtful honor of being the 2nd deadliest earthquake ever. It is in the aftermath of this devastating tragedy that Nick Lake’s In Darkness – the 2012 Michael L. Printz Award Winner – is set.

In the days after the earthquake, 15-year-old everyboy Shorty – his real name is never mentioned – is trapped in darkness in the rubble of a hospital room where he was recovering from a bullet wound. At 15 Shorty’s life could indeed have been any slum boy’s life. Shorty is growing up in what is often called the most dangerous place on earth – the slums of Site Solèy. This is the type of place where you see your father brutally murdered in front of your eyes and where your twin sister is kidnapped by gang members when you’re 8, where you kill your first man at the age of 12 and where babies are left behind in the trash.

Slowly dying of hunger and thirst Shorty, without any prospect of being rescued, is recollecting the events that led him to the hospital room. Like so many other children in the shanty towns of Port-au-Prince, Shorty’s childhood was one of violence with (almost) no chance of escaping a life of drugs, gang wars and (political) corruption. After his father gets killed and his twin sister Marguerite is taken away Shorty even wants to be initiated into the gang of the pro-Aristide chimères of Route 9 and the notorious Dread Wilmè to get his sister back. Trapped in the darkness of the quake rubble he also starts dreaming of (or getting visions about…) the legendary Toussaint de l’Ouverture, who will provide the other voice in this dual narrative.

While Shorty’s story is a story of a boy losing his innocence in Haiti’s present, and a descent into the darkness of violence, brutality and even murder, Toussaint de l’Ouverture’s story (set more than 200 years earlier) is that of a man who wants to achieve a free Haiti, a Haiti free of the darkness that is slavery, in this in the least bloody way possible. Shorty and de l’Ouverture are linked in a spiritual way, be it through dreams or visions, or by vodou. It’s a device in which Nick Lake uses his poetic license to the full, and it is at the same time a clever incorporation of Haitian culture and religion (which takes the novice some getting used to). Through de l’Ouverture Shorty experiences what it means to set a country on track to hope and the light. De l’Ouverture, on the other hand, gets visions of a future of his country – one in which freedom from slavery does not equal happiness and riches, but violence, poverty, rivalry, corruption and in essence just another type of darkness.

In Darkness draws heavily on the Haitian vodou culture – Shorty and Marguerite are marassa,  the metaphor of the zombi is used throughout the two narratives – and Nick Lake uses Krèyol phrases and expressions all through the book (which are often but not always translated). This obviously serves to immerse the reader completely into this other world, but it might have been a good idea to add a glossary with some of the most commonly used Krèyol words and expressions. The cat found herself interrupting her reading to look up certain things, consequently losing some of the reading flow…

However, notwithstanding this minor squabble, the strength of Nick Lake’s novel is obvious. Lake doesn’t deal in pleasantries and states the ugly brutal truth of a country that longs to be free but has as of yet not found the right way to make itself truly free: politics invariable turns to corrupt governing, international aid does not reach its intended goal with aid workers often adding to the corruption, violent gangs recruit the illiterate and most vulnerable… The result is poverty leading to violence leading to more poverty leading to more violence. It’s a terrifying idea, and it’s hard to believe that any form of hope for recovery and true emancipation is still possible in places like this. Considering how desolate the circumstances still are in Haiti – 2 years after the earthquake – the cat is not as convinced as Nick Lake himself seems to be that redemption is still possible. Maybe with a couple more stories of people like Shorty and we’ll start to see a few glimmers of hope here and there… maybe…

In Darkness was the 2012 Michael L. Printz Award winner… an unexpected winner for sure, and it would not have landed on the cat’s desk if it hadn’t won the Printz. Many had bet on Code Name Verity or The Fault in Our Stars for a variety of reasons. To be honest, I don’t think that In Darkness has more or less literary merit than either of those two novels. The Printz committee does, however, seem to like “atypical” narration. But these three books are so completely different that any form or comparison is sort of mute. It all boils down to personal preference in the end of course, and if historical and cultural awareness rocks your boat on top of that “unusual” narration, then obviously In Darkness or Code Name Verity will be your top picks. The cat, however, wants to add an additional dollop of awesome to the mix… 😉

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