What do you do when you see something you wish you hadn’t? Something that scares you, haunts you and threatens to tear your friendships apart? You have to take action. That goes without saying. But what can you do?
These questions plagues 16-year-old Allie Kim. She has always felt isolated from her peers because she suffers from a rare skin disease: Xeroderma Pigmentosum, an allergy to light. Think Nicole Kidman’s kids in the 2001 psychological thriller, The Others. But The Others is a ghost story, with the children’s disease used as a device to keep the haunted house lit only by flickering candles and partitioned by heavy locked doors. Readers of fantasy and paranormal books will find moments to wonder whether something otherworldy is underfoot, but Jacquelyn Mitchard’s WHAT WE SAW AT NIGHT takes place within the realm of reality.
"WHAT WE SAW AT NIGHT is a well-crafted, well-paced crime thriller about friendship, disability, first love and the choices we make about how to spend our short time on this earth."
Since Allie’s DNA is missing the piece that allows skin to resist the potential damage of ultraviolet rays, she can’t go outside during the daytime. Even certain types of indoor lights can harm her. She sunburns easily and runs a very high risk of developing skin cancer from the cumulative effect of small exposures to sunlight. According to Dr. Sanjay Gupta in an appearance on Anderson, only about 1,000 people in the world have this disease.
Allergic to daylight, Allie’s social life is relegated to the night, when her mother allows Allie and her two best friends, Juliet and Rob, who are, of course, the other two teenagers in their small town living with XP, to roam the streets. (Allie’s mom warns her to be home by sunrise.) It’s all of the fun of outcasts having thrilling and rebellious adventures in the lonely, mysterious night that we’re used to getting from vampire books. But here, the protagonists’ outsider status comes from a real disability. This makes the story, if anything, more appealing. But don’t let Allie or her friends hear you make a vampire reference. They push unsuspecting ex-boyfriends into empty graves for such suggestions.
One night, tempestuous Juliet paints glow-in-the-dark stars down her body and leaps from the top of a building. This is no suicide. This is Parkour. And it’s going to be their new hobby. The three friends are all gripped by the idea of working in harmony with their surroundings to navigate space in ways they had never imagined possible. Not surprising, given the extent to which their disease limits their movements and restricts their access to all sorts of spaces.
But one night, a storm hits during a Parkour session. The power goes out when the XP trio reaches a penthouse balcony, and emergency backup lights flood the previously darkened penthouse. That’s when Allie sees it, the thing she wishes she could un-see: a man with a lightning-shaped white streak in his dark hair bending over the half-dressed body of a young woman. She looks dead. Juliet tries to convince her otherwise. Is Juliet just scared like Allie, or does she know something she isn’t telling? Juliet is Allie’s best friend, a beautiful wild child. Allie loves her, and understands why her longtime crush on Rob can never become anything more since Rob only has eyes for Juliet.
National bestseller Jacquelyn Mitchard unfolds this part-thriller, part-bildungsroman with a grace born of experience. She is the author of over 20 books for readers spanning all age groups. When Oprah kicked off her famous Book Club 17 years ago, her first selection was Mitchard’s THE DEEP END OF THE OCEAN.
Whatever your opinions on Oprah’s Book Club, Mitchard is an effortless storyteller who can make even minor characters take up vibrant residence in a reader’s imagination. There’s Nicola, the sweet “daytimer” and yearbook staff member with whom Allie wants to rekindle a friendship. There’s Allie’s mom, who gives her daughter birth control pills, just in case things eventually go right with Rob. There’s Gideon Brave Bear, the Native American who runs the town pizza parlor, hates the term “Native American” and fiercely protects his young customers when they are in over their heads.
WHAT WE SAW AT NIGHT is a well-crafted, well-paced crime thriller about friendship, disability, first love and the choices we make about how to spend our short time on this earth. Fans of this book need not despair as they speed toward its final page. A sequel is already in the works. Considering Mitchard’s track record, it is probably safe to get excited about it.
Reviewed by Caroline Osborn on January 8, 2013