In Darkness is the tale of a Haitian teen, Shorty, who is trapped in the literal darkness of post-earthquake rubble. Shorty has a bullet in his arm and demons in his belly. Devastated by the loss of his twin sister, who was taken from him by gangsters seven years ago, his desire for answers and revenge has propelled him in to the very gang culture which ripped a hole through his life. Thus begins his confessional story.
Nick Lake’s novel also tells the story of Touissant Louverture, leader of the Haitian Slave Revolt and architect of the nation’s eventual independence. Alternating with Shorty’s narrative, Touissant’s half of the story does not attempt to be a comprehensive account of his life, instead focusing on his role in the revolt itself, and how his tactical nous, both in military and diplomatic matters, ensured the Haitians prevailed. But it’s far from plain sailing for him either…
The parallels between the two narratives are mostly implicit (with one or two glaringly obvious exceptions), and all the better for that. For Nick Lake’s novel is very much Literary with a capital L. It has all the page turning suspense and action you’d expect from a young adult novel, but make no mistake that this is a novel of ideas: any novel which discusses the great romantic/political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau is going to be. Themes of slavery and social division obviously lend In Darkness a distinctly political slant. Its thoughtful meditation on ethical values, and whether these are determined by one’s cultural framework, gives it an emotional core too.
How widely appealing Lake’s novel will be remains to be seen. Expletives spatter Shorty’s narrative; violence is regular and unflinching in both, though, again, more graphic in 21st Century Haiti. The split narrative works well, for me, but I’m not sure if the same could be said for a teenage audience. The vivid immediacy of Shorty’s first person narrative might be more readily appealing than the close third person of Touissant’s. Whilst the themes overlap, Touissant’s story is essentially a historical novel, in contrast to the contemporary concerns of Shorty’s. How well a young person responds to this could well depend on the extent to which they can join the thematic dots. Patrick Ness believes there are plenty who would be able to; let's hope he's right.
In Darkness is well written, brutally told and thematically worthy. Carnegie tends to like at least one politically charged, global ‘issues’ novel on its shortlist (last year’s was Andy Mulligan’s Trash), not to mention historical fiction (2012 saw both The Midnight Zoo and Between Shades of Grey shortlisted). But Lake’s novel stands up well enough in its own right to shrug off any suggestions of tokenism. Nevertheless, looking at this year’s shortlist, I would suggest it’s an outside bet to bag the gong.