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May Discussion – In Darkness by Nick Lake

In DarknessIn Darkness, by Nick Lake, was a challenging read.  Most of us found the beginning chapter very difficult when the varied characters with their unusual nicknames are introduced.  It took us some time to get used to the narrator’s voice and the Kréyol language.  It was thought perhaps that this was because the beginning is lacking action and we are only exposed to Shorty’s thoughts as he is trapped in the rubble.

Weaving the two sections of the modern story with the historical narrative was well done and became much easier to read after the initial chapters. We thought that the historical sections from Toussaint’s point of view were very well written and some of us enjoyed those more because of our historical interest.  We recognised that we actually knew very little about the history or geography of Haiti, and even its location, and welcomed learning about the historical struggle of slavery in this part of the world.

It was noted that in year 9 history at one school they study colonisation and slavery so it was suggested that teachers could read excerpts from this novel.  Reading aloud the passages where Toussaint remembers the killing of the newborn and the whippings and beatings of the slaves was very successful in one year 10 history class who are studying rights, freedoms and slavery. This led on to a discussion about the issue of slavery and how Lake cleverly explains the financial benefit of slavery to the French economy. We discussed the behaviours of the slave owners noting that his master actually cares for Toussaint but ultimately is a man of his time who cannot go against the status quo.  He has to deal with his equals whom he knows are not just but it is impossible to break out of the system.

Ultimately this is a novel about power on many levels and we debated about the power of names, religion, education and children.  Toussaint notes the irony that in France all those people died for a free republic yet ended up with an emperor.  Another irony is that Toussaint, when ‘floating’ over modern Haiti, believes the black people to finally be free, yet in reality the Haitians are still controlled by foreign interests with many living in abject poverty in ghettoes cordoned off from the rest of the city.  Haiti, represented in the novel, is a failed state with a corrupt government dependent on Western aid agencies.  The best day of Shorty’s life, he narrates, is when he goes to the house in the hill and he calls himself “free”.  We were frightened that the boys would hurt the maid and this further reinforced to us how fragile life is in societies such as Haiti and New Guinea (more close to home) which have a colonial history and the wealthy live in gated compounds.

The power of names is strongly emphasised.  Characters do not go by their real names and we discussed the idea that knowing someone’s name confers power to you.  This is a theme that surfaces in both the past and present sections of the novel.  Toussaint is given his name by his owner.  One of the names of the gang members is decided during the fight with Tintin. Gang names rob the members of their individual identities but gives them a false sense of bravado and belonging. Nicknames grant anonymity but your real name gives dignity.  Shorty’s mother is disgusted by his behaviour so a pseudo name is also a way of anonymity.  It is ironic that when Biggie is dying Shorty wishes that just for once he would call him by his real name.

To be literate is to have power and we noted that the real Toussaint could read as the son of an educated slave.  The UNESCO website states that Toussaint was taught to read by his owner; however, in the novel Toussaint obtains his ability to read and understand maps through vodou from Shorty. This is one of the liberties taken by Lake in this story.  We also noted that Lake has mentioned that the Spanish were also involved in Haiti but he left out their history so as not to complicate the story.

Although the lowest in rank in the gang Shorty has a sense of power by virtue of superstition; he is a twin, he has the pwen stone and Marassa power and he is delivered by Aristide.  Neither Toussaint nor Shorty fully believes in vodou but the theatrical performance entices them, as well as the reader.  We explored the idea of the power of the mind and persuasion and the potential of believing in trances and being possessed by spirits. Even as children Shorty and Marguerite know how to ‘perform’ in the ceremony to please their mother.  We thought this had a parallel with modern day religious revivalist movements. We also thought that Shorty dreaming of Toussaint and Toussaint dreaming of Shorty was a form of modern day vodou interpretation of belief in something beyond your own life.

The power of vodou and the concept of ‘how to make a zombie’ some felt was a metaphor for the novel.  Shorty was a zombie in the earthquake, who comes back to life but is damaged.  The point was raised that gang life is also a ‘zombie life’ and a consequence of stripping humanity from people.  This led to a discussion of the touching scene when Shorty overhears Biggie crying on the telephone to his mum who is working as a cleaner in Miami, ironically to send him money for a better life that he most likely spends on drugs.  This reinforces the notion that the gang members are all adolescents who have been abandoned but who don masks and false bravado to cope with day to day life.

We were scared that Toussaint’s son was going to intentionally betray him and in a way his naivety did.  The comparison was made with Shorty because it was his mother who unwittingly betrays him by withholding the truth from him. We saw parallels with the stories the whole way through and were fascinated that each narrative complemented the other in a perfect structure.  We could see things happen in the past that came through into the present, for example, we knew that Toussaint invented the double cup insulator and knew that Shorty had already done that as well. Another full circle is realised when the doctor, from Médecins Sans Frontières, who attends to Shorty is the same doctor who years before takes the baby Marguerite has found in the trash.

We hoped and thought that Marguerite might have survived but also thought she would have suffered a terrible fate had she survived.  None of us had expected her to die that first day and were shocked by Shorty’s mother’s revelation.   We felt for his mother’s grief but her motivation set him on his destructive path.  The quote on page 87 sums up how people respond to adversity:

When you keep hurting someone, you do one of three things. Either you fill them up with hate, and they destroy everything around them. Or you fill them up with sadness, and they destroy themselves. Or you fill them up with justice, and they try to destroy everything that’s bad and cruel in this world.

We felt that Toussaint acted in the final manner and Shorty, although he initially behaveswith hatred, after his experience would act with justice and hope.  It is foreshadowed that Shorty will become the 21st century Toussaint.

We thought the novel had very mixed messages about the aid of the West. On the one hand the people coming to kill the gangsters in the ghetto are the military but on the other hand they are giving out the food.  Lake is careful not to judge either side.  The novel does make the reader question how much more complicated aid situations are when the distribution of food is operated by gangs and we noted similar situations in Afghanistan and Sudan. As a point of interest it was mentioned that the UN was being sued for starting a cholera epidemic in Haiti because it was Nepalese peace givers who brought cholera to Haiti after the earthquake. We commented that giving aid can be yet another form of colonisation. We also noted that Stephanie was an interesting character who had been seduced by the cause, and then by Biggie, and it is again ironic that she will take his baby back to France with her after his death.

We mentioned this quote from Nick Lake:

I think the overarching theme of the book is hope, and the existence of hope. Really awful things happen to Shorty in the course of the story, and to the slaves of the eighteenth century. And Shorty does awful things too. But in the end, all hope is not lost, and I feel that’s an essential truth about life in general.

To some extent we disagreed with the author.  We thought that whilst there was hope for Shorty as an individual, we were still left with a sense of sadness for the big picture of life in Haiti and the struggles faced by her people after hundreds of years of slavery, colonisation and the geographical disadvantage of living on a fault line. Finally we read an excerpt of a review from Patrick Ness and debated the appeal of prize winning books like this to the average teen reader.

Overall we felt this to be a very challenging read even for adults and some of us would not have persevered had it not been for bookclub.  We found the language was confronting and the lack of a glossary gave a sense of powerlessness. It is beautifully written with wonderful examples of figurative language. Some would only recommend this to English extension students and then only very carefully as it challenges young people who are already aware of injustice and this novel deals with hopelessness, violence and cruelty. It would be important to support a teen through the reading as it is a powerful book and its effect on a young person could be significant. We were surprised that Bloomsbury has given this book an age of 13+ and did not think that appropriate. This book put us right out of our comfort zone but generally we were glad that we had read it.