Friday, February 8, 2013

In Darkness by Nick Lake

Linked storylines set in Haiti alternate in Nick Lake's Printz award-winning In Darkness. 'Then' follows the life of Toussaint L'Ouverture, leader of the 18th-century revolution in Haiti, and 'Now' is narrated by Shorty, a 15-year-old gang member from the slums near Port-au-Prince, trapped in the rubble of a hospital after the earthquake in 2010.

In his author's note, Lake talks about the violent slum where Shorty grew up, Site Soley (Sun City). "It has frequently been named the most dangerous place on earth. People really did, and do, eat pies made of mud, such is their desperation. Babies really were, and are, left to die on piles of trash."

Shorty addresses readers directly: "You, maybe you live in a world where people don't get shot. I know what you're picturing. I've seen anpil movies. You think bullet holes in a person look like little circular holes, like red coins. They don't. What a bullet does, it goes into a person and it tears, it rips them open, makes them into a monster. They're not human anymore."

The meaning of Kreyol (Creole) words (like 'anpil' - lots) are either clear in context, or else a translation follows: Ayit viv (long live Haiti) and ptit tig se tig (the son of a tiger is still a tiger).

Shorty's voice is distinct: "My stomach is a tiny ruled-up thing, like a cat, and it's got claws that dig into me. My mouth is a desert that stretches miles in every direction." He tells us about his twin sister, Marguerite, who was taken away by a rival gang when she was nine: "She was like an angel in the Site. Grandmothers would touch her for luck, I'm not fucking kidding." And his mother: "Manman, she liked to count her blessings. It didn't usually take long."

As Shorty grows weaker, he distracts himself by remembering the words to one of Notorious B.I.G.'s songs, Ready to Die. He learned English from rap songs like this, where he heard about luxury products he would never see. "I always knew a Lexus was a car, cos I saw a couple of them on the road to the airport, but when I was younger I thought a Rolex was a car, too. Tintin laughed when I told him that, called me a cretin. But you think Tintin ever saw a Rolex in his whole goddamn life? You do, you're a fool."

After a voodoo ceremony, Toussaint and Shorty become psychically linked. Shorty thinks he's maybe having vivid dreams based on what he knows of history, but it's more confusing for Toussaint, experiencing the future. Toussaint doesn't understand English rap words, but describes his impression: "the notes and beats of the music were like a scream of furious anger, like a murder made sound."

In Darkness is a rewarding and memorable novel for older teens as well as adults.

Companion reads: Selavi, That Is Life: A Haitian Story of Hope (by Youme) - a picture book suitable for all ages. Another possibility is Farewell, Fred Voodoo  by American journalist Amy Wilentz, which I've not yet read.

Readalikes: The Poet Slave of Cuba (Margarita Engle); What Is the What (Dave Eggers)

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