In Darkness by Nick Lake
The world watched in horror as, in 2010, Haiti's main city Port au Prince collapsed under a shocking earthquake, its poorly constructed buildings crashing down and killing around a quarter of a million people. Since then, we've had our own earthquake and while it's a dangerous and foolish game to compare tragedies, Haiti's extreme poverty and troubled history certainly added a devastating dimension to the natural disaster.
What do we know of Haiti? For most of us the answer is probably not much - apart from the fact that it's one of the world's poorest countries. So, reading a novel set there is particularly satisfying, expanding our understanding beyond our own quotidian horizons and, yes, making our own daily concerns seem mostly paltry by comparison.
The story works in two distinct yet related time frames, 200 years apart. In the now, the earthquake has just happened. Fourteen-year-old Shorty, a gangster, is trapped inside the ruins of the hospital where he'd been treated for a gunshot wound. Pinned there in the darkness, starving and dehydrated, he revisits his brief life.
He's a child of Port au Prince's notorious slum Site Soley, often described, the author's note tells us, as the most dangerous place on earth. It's a place where some of the most unbelievable details are the truest: yes, desperate people really do eat pies made of mud, and babies really are left on piles of trash to die.
Shorty's father was murdered during factional violence, and his sister taken by one of the gangs that both run and terrify the city. In his quest to find her and also to revenge his father, Shorty is drawn into the world of gangsters.
Intermittent with Shorty's narrative, another voice enters the story, that of Toussaint l'Ouverture, leader of the late-18th century slave rebellion that freed Haiti from the slave-driving British and French.
Slowly, the two strands are brought together, thanks to surreal touches of narrative that both honour the voudou traditions of Haiti, and hint at the state of Shorty's own mind as it wanders closer to death.
I didn't realise until the very end that this book is intended for teenagers. It stands up perfectly well as an adult read. It is big-themed, full of specific social and political detail - the role of the United Nations in policing the slums, for instance - and implicates Western powers and individuals, even well-meaning ones, in the ongoing problems of Haiti today.
When you live in the poorest part of the poorest country in the world, life is not like our own. Violence is abrupt, and life is desperate. Shorty becomes a killer at 12. Teenage readers will strongly empathise with the horror of that; adult readers will ponder the meaning of morality in a world gone mad. Young adult/adult - these can be random distinctions. What matters is that the story is well told, and this one is beautifully so. Recommended, whatever your age.
Margie Thomson is an Auckland reviewer.