a review by Nalini Haynes
In Darkness by Nick Lake opens with Shorty, a teenage boy, trapped under rubble after an earthquake in Haiti. Alone in the darkness, afraid corpses will become zombies or he will turn into a zombie, Shorty reminisces, reviewing his life through flashbacks. Strangely some of these flashbacks aren’t from his life, instead they are from Toussaint L’Overture’s life: Toussaint liberated Haiti over three centuries earlier.
Shorty’s flashbacks tell a tale of extreme poverty and violent politics that destroyed his family. From Shorty’s point of view, UN military forces have imprisoned and murdered his people to reduce the number of murders. In Darkness is a vivid portrayal of a side of Haiti rarely seen by white people except in the most revealing documentaries. Nick Lake says his research into Toussaint’s life was thorough although in the author notes Lake acknowledges simplifying the story by omitting mention of the Spanish-controlled side of Haiti and other complications. I don’t know enough about Haiti to comment about the authenticity of Lake’s interpretation.
In Darkness juxtaposes the two stories as they unfold. Shorty fights, couriers drugs and murders people to survive in the hope of being reunited with his twin sister. Toussaint is a gentle man whose genius saved lives while liberating Haiti from slavery. Motives speak to character while the reader is in suspense: even if you know Toussaint’s story, what will happen to Shorty? Will he find his sister? Will he be rescued or die trapped under the rubble? Haiti’s story has no end as Haiti is still trapped in the rubble of post-colonialism and corruption as well as suffering ruinous earthquakes.
Cultural appropriation controversies surround any cross-cultural novel written by a white person about another people group. My first consideration is always to ask ‘Is this respectful?’ Based on the few documentaries I’ve seen about contemporary Haiti, I believe In Darkness is respectful and well-researched.
My second concern with cultural appropriation: ‘Is In Darkness convincing in its cross-cultural voice?’ Mostly. The worst slip out of the cadence of Shorty’s voice was when he described his mother as being ‘constrained’ by soldiers: that really jarred. Most of Shorty’s narration was far more convincing although his voice did the equivalent of an actor’s accent slipping from time to time. Toussaint’s voice was more mature in tone which was to be expected. Here Lake wrote based on historical documents, balancing his interpretation of Toussaint with his target audience of young adult readers. Toussaint’s voice differing from Shorty’s was effective but his voice felt a bit more Western.
In principle I’m conditionally supportive of white guys writing books about characters who may not be white and male. If white guys don’t write about people other than themselves, then Western literature becomes very homogenised and pasteurised. Lake was respectful in his interpretation. Lake is not the colonial overlord when he describes Shorty’s views of whites and UN military forces. Regardless of slips in voice, I felt the characters were engaging and believable.
My remaining concern is the presentation of voudou and Haitian religious beliefs. Lake’s approach seems to be from an atheist’s perspective writing fantasy. In this he may be taking the position of colonial overlord; I’m decisively ambivalent on this point. The deciding factor for me would be input from a few Haitians sharing how they feel about Lake’s interpretation.
In Darkness is a blend of fantasy and narrative non-fiction that both educates and entertains. Shorty and Toussaint are sympathetic characters. Shorty’s story unfolds, building to the climax where the beginning meets the end, trapped under the rubble, wondering if he’ll live or die. Toussaint’s story was predictable because of his era, which made his achievements without training even more admirable. Haiti’s story does not have a satisfactory conclusion; Lake poses no solutions, only dilemmas. I highly recommend In Darkness for a broad audience, not just YA readers.
The book trailer features the author.