In Darkness is Nick Lake’s debut novel and an extraordinarily powerful one at that.
Set in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti Earthquake, the novel is literally set in darkness: our narrator, Shorty, is entombed in the remains of a collapsed hospital as rescuers lose hope of finding any survivors. In the darkness and rubble, he tells us the story of his life.
The language here is poetical and lyrical despite the horrors of Shorty’s world and history. The opening lines are
I am the voice in the dark, calling out for your help.
I am the quiet voice that you hope will not turn to silence, the voice you want to keep hearing cos it means someone is still alive. I am the voice calling for you to come and dig me out. I am the voice in the dark, asking you to unbury me, to bring me from the grave out into the light, like a zombi.
I am a killer and I have been killed, too, over and over; I am constantly being born. I have lost more things than I have found; I have destroyed more things than I have built. I have seen babies abandoned in the trash and I have seen the dead come back to life.
I first shot a man when I was twelve years old.
And Shorty’s life and world are born of violence, trauma and death. The Haitian fault line – the cause of the earthquake – symbolises the division in society between black and white, native and foreign, rich and poor, the gangs named Boston and Route 9, life and death. He was born with his twin sister in a small earthquake in a political and delivered by Jean-Baptiste Aristide who went on to become president before being ousted. On their birth, it was prophesied that Shorty and his twin Marguerite would be “born in darkness and blood and that’s how he’ll die”.
And darkness and blood describes the poverty of Site Soley (or Cité Soleil), the slum in which Shorty lives. We discover babies disposed of in the garbage, drugs, gang warfare, guns, murder, voodoo (or vodou). Lake captures this poverty and violence of twentieth century Haiti without sensationalising or becoming sentimental through the use of Shorty’s voice. And Shorty has a fantastic narrative voice as he narrates his own story: he is utterly convincing and compelling despite the atrocities that he commits and which he describes unflinchingly.
Like many Young Adult novels, especially a number of Carnegie Medal nominees, Lake interweaves the modern story of Shorty’s life with a historical narrative of the nineteenth century slave uprising against the French colonial powers. This side of the novel is narrated by Toussaint L’Ouverture, the slave leader who triumphed over the French and British and became Governor-General of the Island.
This part of the novel was less satisfying for me: Toussaint was portrayed as so unimpeachably noble that he didn’t seem convincing as a narrator. His initial reluctance to lead the rebellion, his insistence that bloodshed and violence be kept to a minimum, his constant arriving to treat the French with magnanimity struck me as too good to be true.
Probably like many of Lake’s readers, I knew nothing about vodou save for the voodoo doll, which has nothing to do with this book at all! What I am aware of (alas through literature rather than travel!) is Nigerian culture. Texts like Things Fall Apart, writers like the late lamented Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ben Okri and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie are steeped in the traditions and beliefs that Haitian Vodou echoes. The veneration and worship of ancestors, the embodiment of the spirits of Gods and ancestors in religious celebration and the egungun were a strong echo of the vodou rituals which Lake describes remarkably sympathetically for a London-based writer. Papa Legba the spirit or lwa or loa of the crossroads, Baron Samedi the lwa who ferries the dead to the other world beneath the seas which is governed by La Sirene, Marassa the lwa of twins and Ogou Badagry the lwa of war populate both narratives in the novel as much as historical characters such as Aristide and Toussaint and invented characters like Shorty and Marguerite.
Do you need to accept the truth of vodou religion to enjoy the novel? Of course not! Lake portrays the vodou ceremonies with a delicate balance of skepticism (neither Shorty nor Toussaint believe the ceremonies and view them as little more than theatrics) and belief. And the parallel between religion and theatre, belief and suspended disbelief is a deeply evocative and powerful one.
This is a challenging book and an uncompromising for a young adult book – perhaps bridging the gap between young adult and adult fiction – as it balances with a very deft hand the fictional, mythical and historical. The language of the book is heavily accented with Kréyol, the officially recognised creole language of Haiti which (like the people themselves and vodou) emerged from a commingling of West African and French influences.
For Patrick Ness’ review of the book, click here