“I am the voice in the dark, calling out for your help.”
Nick Lake‘s In Darkness is the 2013 Printz Award winning story of a nameless teen trapped in the rubble underneath a collapsed hospital after the Haiti earthquake. His only companion in the darkness is a decomposing hand, his own memories, and a psychic connection to Touissant l’Ouverture, a Haitian revolutionary who lived 200 years earlier.
So, this book is…wait for it…dark. And when I say it’s dark, I mean dark in every sense of the word. Half of the narrative’s setting is defined by absolute darkness. The sense of claustrophobia as we experience the narrator’s blindness, his thirst that drives him to drink whatever blood has collected on the floor, to reach out and touch a disembodied hand just to see if his only companion in his coffin is alive, is overwhelmingly visceral.
The subject matter is dark. It is a story of horrible lives, of murder and murderers, of watching your father get hacked apart by machete toting gangsters, of fighting for your country’s freedom only to die in a dungeon on the other side of the world. This is the kind of story that, for the bulk of its telling, makes you want to kill yourself from the overwhelming sense that there is nothing good in the world, at all.
The writing is staggering in its bleak beauty. Some of my favorite quotes include:
“I tried to call out, but bullets are faster than words, and I was just standing there in the middle of all that metal death” (263).
“We have a mouth – we can feel it in our face, an opening into us that can let the spirit out – but when we use it, when we speak, there is no one to listen. The voices that come to us, drifting through the darkness beyond our prison, they might as well be the voices of the dead. (…) We are a slave to this space, to the inevitable decay of trapped things. We can feed ourselves, but there is no food; we can work with our hands and with our minds, but there is nothing on which to work; we have eyes, but there is nothing to see. There is no future and no past. We are in the darkness. We are one” (326-7).
One of my favorite things about this book was the spirit of Om that came through more and more strongly as the narrative progressed; the sense of emptiness and unity, while horribly depressing in context, was also one of the only reoccurring moments in which I, as a reader, felt liberated from the oppressing sense of insurmountable awfulness.
At times I struggled to get through Touissant’s half of the narrative; it just didn’t have the pop that our nameless narrator’s story had. However, I appreciated the parallels of experience that spanned the hundreds of years between their physical lives, and so I was able to deal.
All in all, this is a pretty amazing book that still continues to haunt me. However, there are parts that can be difficult to get through without wanting to say “fuck this world, I want to die,” so just be forewarned if you do decide to pick it up.
And, just because Biggie Smalls is mentioned every other page, it’s only fitting that he gets the spotlight for this edition’s music match.
Where I got it: the library