To call Nick Lake's IN DARKNESS a book for young people is to do it a disservice. Certainly it should be read by anyone who would benefit from a richer understanding of the troubled country of Haiti. But, after all, couldn't that apply to the vast majority of Americans today, regardless of their age? When most of us saw a Haiti torn apart by earthquake devastation in January 2010, those television pictures were likely the first scenes we had seen of Haiti in years, the first time we had thought of it in months. With IN DARKNESS, Nick Lake vividly --- and at times, painfully --- illustrates that Haiti's troubled recent past is but one more violent and brutal chapter in its long and bloody history.
"Nick Lake vividly --- and at times, painfully --- illustrates that Haiti's troubled recent past is but one more violent and brutal chapter in its long and bloody history."
The novel opens in January 2010, where a boy known as Shorty lies trapped in darkness, buried alive in the rubble of a collapsed hospital, surrounded by the rapidly decaying bodies of the dead. Shorty isn't sure what happened to plunge him into this hell, but he's not surprised to find himself in such a dangerous position. His entire life, in fact, has been a struggle for survival, this new challenge just a little more dire than most.
While Shorty struggles to keep his body alive, he also grasps at stories of his past to keep himself from going mad. He recalls the near-mystical circumstances of his birth, the tragedies that ripped his family apart, the series of events that led him to join a gang and become a foot soldier in the ongoing war that defined life in Haiti's slums.
He also --- without realizing it or understanding why --- dreams up stories of Toussaint L'Ouverture, the former slave who led the revolution for Haiti's people's freedom from their white oppressors. Shorty never learned all these details about Toussaint in school. How can he see inside his mind so vividly, witnessing brutal scenes from a history he never knew or even imagined? How is Shorty's present connected to Toussaint's past? And can a centuries-old story give Shorty the hope he needs to survive? As Shorty reflects, "there's always time, flowing in and out, and eventually time brings the wreckage of the past up on the beach, for other people to find."
As Nick Lake writes in his foreword to IN DARKNESS, virtually everything he writes about in the novel is actually part of Haiti's past or present. This includes violent scenes of rape, torture and murder, as well as rebellion, hope and rebirth. At one point, Shorty and Toussaint share similar impulses to classify the world. Shorty's version goes like this: "When you keep hurting someone, you do one of three things. Either you fill them up with hate, and they destroy everything around them. Or you fill them up with sadness, and they destroy themselves. Or you fill them up with justice, and they try to destroy everything that's bad and cruel in this world." Shorty's question --- and the question for the reader as well --- is whether a person can change course from a destroyer to a seeker of justice. Shedding light on Haiti's history allows Shorty to begin to comprehend his own troubled past and the arduous present and tenuous future of his country.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on February 29, 2012