To take fragments of life
And arrange them as
Pretty shards of glass
I read this praised first novel on a Kindle which may have detracted from the poetic-ness of the whole but made it a fast, tube journey read. Some flaws are inherent to the form, slight plot, stereotyped characters (an African doctor who says things like ‘There is no hyena without a friend') but Cassie, the protagonist, is a vividly portrayed thirteen year old growing up quickly as she adjusts to living in a new country caught between estranged parents. I can see teenage girls reading this and being inspired to write their own poetry. Which is definitely a good thing.
Code Name Verity has had much blogger love with reviewers being ‘floored’ and ‘sucker punched’ by its twists and turns.To summarise, there is a WWII flying ace and a spy, both young women. One is captured by the Gestapo one isn’t. The book is told from one, then the other’s point-of-view. I prefer a book that takes you by the hand rather than one that assaults you but I too was beguiled by the elegant structure, something like a periscope in which the narratorial voices function as prisms that leave one looking at things from an utterly different perspective. There are flaws. A romanticized view of class in which one of the protagonist’s looks, lineage and Swiss boarding-school education do not lead to inbred stupidity, a lackadaisical dependence on Daddy’s money and a propensity for jumping into swimming-pools fully clothed but rather to intelligence, pluck and a Stiff Upper Lip under Nazi interrogation. The final series of events becomes increasingly unlikely, culminating with the ’good German’ collaborator beloved of children’s literature. This rather lets the Nazis off the hook when a glance at Wikipedia will show that Noor Inayat Khan, Violette Szabo and many others were efficiently executed by their captors. The relationship between the protagonists is so subtly portrayed that many have interpreted it as a story of ‘female friendship’ when it is clearly a love story. So, flawed but a diamond nonetheless.
In Darkness is a slow burner, a dual narrative told from the point of view of Shorty, a fifteen year old Haitian gangster from the slums trapped under the rubble of a collapsed hospital after the 2010 earthquake. Shorty lives, unlike the quarter of a million who died in he tragedy. As Shorty lies without food and water, the tale of his brutal life in the slums is interspersed with the story of the most famous Haitian of all, Toussaint Louverture. The conceit that Shorty and Louverture undergo some kind of Voudou mind-melding spirit swap is a brave one, some may object to the implication that Louverture's successful rebellion and defeat of both the French and English was due to a sojourn inside a twenty-first century 15 year old's brain, but Nick Lake manages to balance the two threads and if, by the end we are as interested in the history of an 18th century revolutionary as in the unrelenting tale of life as a chimere in the slums, this is a good thing. Probably.
Reading other reviews I was struck by the lack of an insider perspective on the book. Does Lake reduce imaginings of Haiti to earthquakes, voudou, slum lords and Toussaint Louverture ? Certainly the NYT review wondered. Lake's novel has already won the Printz, so evidently this wasn't a problem for others. A writer exploring history fraught with disaster, death and disappointment from a position of safety and privilege should be prepared for the question however.