Two years after the earthquake, the crippling poverty and devastation faced by the Haitian people has all but disappeared from the news in the United States. In his debut novel, Nick Lake brings readers back to the days immediately following the earthquake through the eyes of Shorty, a Haitian teen trapped in a life of poverty, gang warfare, hunger, and pain. Shorty was in the hospital when the earthquake struck. Shot by a rival gang member, he is expected to recover, but the earthquake traps him in a pile of rubble that he cannot escape. He is surrounded by corpses, and soon begins to hallucinate about the life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the 18th-century revolutionary who led the slave revolt that gave Haiti its freedom. The stories of both men are intertwined throughout the novel, and the similarities between the two, along with the complex intergenerational bond that unites them, helps to sustain Shorty through his ordeal. Toussaint and Shorty share the same struggle – to survive when the odds are against them – and both do, though in different ways.
The gang lifestyle that Shorty cannot escape is described in detail but never glamorized; rather, it’s presented as Shorty’s only route to surviving the slums of the Site Soley. Toussaint’s story, which few American teens will know, opens young readers’ eyes to a revolution they likely never studied in school. In Darkness isn’t an easy read, and it’s not uplifting, but it’s a very important book that will help young adult (and adult) readers understand more about Haiti’s history – and its present-day problems. I came away with a deeper understanding of the human rights issues in modern Haiti, and the desperation, even before the earthquake, is worse than I could have imagined.