I read In Darkness, by Nick Lake (Bloomsbury, 2012, YA), in short bits over the course of several months. My lack of absobtion came not from the quality of the writing, or the intensity of the story, because both were there; rather, the story itself is so dark that I couldn't bear to lose myself in it.
It tells of the harrowing days that "Shorty," a Haitian boy, spends trapped in the ruins of a hospital after the earthquake of 2010 sends his world crashing into ruins. Trapped in the darkness, with the constant torture of thirst and hunger and pain, he hopes against hope for rescue. All the while he is haunted by memories of violence, and loss, and choices that went wrong.
But Shorty isn't entirely alone in his prison. Half of his spirit has travelled backwards to the past, to join with the spirit of one of the great heroes of his country--his ancestor, the slave Toussaint L'Ouverture, who became the leader of the revolution at the end of the 18th century that feed the slaves and drove out the invading British. Toussaint dreams of Shorty...and Shorty of Toussaint, as each relives their lives up to the point where the darkness came.
For Toussaint's story didn't end in light and hope, and Shorty fears that his, too, will end with in the darkness.
The stories of the two protagonists are clear and distinct, Shorty's told in the first person, and Toussaint's in the third. Their spirits may overlap, and Toussaint in particular has real glimpses of Shorty's present, and magically learns to read via their contact, but there's no time travel in tangible form. Toussaint might feel the presence of Shorty, but Shorty seems much less aware of him--I kept waiting for this awareness to happen, but it never quite reached that point. Still, the connection between the two is fundamental (in a somewhat vague way that I never quite grasped--I think I would have to read it straight through more clearly and coldly to fully comprehend it) to the struggle against the darkness that both face. At the end, however, it is the travel of Toussaint's spirit from the past that gives Shorty the strength to make a last effort.
Both stories are dark. Toussaint's is the less crushingly awful story--for a time, there is hope that he has managed to achieve his dream of a free country for free men. It reads like harrowing historical fiction. Shorty's story, on the other hand, is immediate and painful. For Shorty, a life of utter poverty, where squalor and hopelessness are unremarkable realities, has left little room for hope; his time as a violent member of a drug gang was not happy reading. Yet still he hopes to escape from the destruction of the earthquake.
But I am left not at all hopeful that anything has changed for the better, that this experience of souls meeting over the centuries will actually change anything enough for Shorty's life to materially improve. Yes, he learns to regret the path he took, and emerges with a rekindled love for this mother, but I don't know that that will be enough. Toussaint himself, after all, could not, in the end, fight the darkness that overcame his country and himself.
Still, it's a powerful book, and a memorable one. It doesn't flinch from graphic violence, and so it convinces in a way that sugar-coating reality would not have done.
(disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher)