Thursday 11 May 2017

At First Light by Vanessa Lafaye: Review by Katherine Clements

Vanessa Lafaye’s new book At First Light returns to the world captured so beautifully in her 2015 debut Summertime. Set in the Florida Keys in the early 20th century, it is a prequel of sorts, but the novel stands alone. Again Lafaye has chosen to base her story on real history, this time an unsolved murder by the Ku Klux Klan in 1919. Here’s the blurb:

1993, Key West, Florida. When a Ku Klux Klan official is shot in broad daylight, all eyes turn to the person holding the gun: a 96-year-old Cuban woman who will say nothing except to admit her guilt.

1919. Mixed-race Alicia Cortez arrives in Key West exiled in disgrace from her family in Havana. At the same time, damaged war hero John Morales returns home on the last US troop ship from Europe. As love draws them closer in this time of racial segregation, people are watching, including Dwayne Campbell, poised on the brink of manhood and struggling to do what's right. And then the Ku Klux Klan comes to town...

Inspired by real events, At First Light weaves together a decades-old grievance and the consequences of a promise made as the sun rose on a dark day in American history.

At First Light
is a deceptively easy read. Lafaye’s effortless prose drew me in instantly. I could feel the sultry heat, smell the lush greenery (and the abundant filth!) and sense the pulsing tension of a town seething with poverty, corruption and racial resentment. Lafaye is brilliant at creating flawed but sympathetic protagonists and in Alicia Cortez gives us a captivating, complex female lead. The artful split narrative does exactly what it should – though I suspected I already knew the end of Alicia’s story and a ‘happily ever after’ was unlikely, I was desperate to know what happened. But the ease with which I slipped into her story belies the depths of this novel.

Billed as ‘an epic love story and an unsolved murder’, I’d say the latter – both the events leading up to it and the eventual act of vengeance – is the real heart of this tale. Lafaye has clearly done her research and the sections dealing with the Ku Klux Klan are compelling and unsettling. A major thread concerns well-meaning young man Dwayne, who struggles to find his place in a world heavily influenced by his white supremacist father. Dwayne is attracted to the Klan’s message, couched as it is as a righteous cause for the greater good. Parallels with modern extremism and political polarisation are strong but Lafaye leaves enough space for us to make our own links and cast our own judgements.

There’s plenty of ‘real history’ for the geeks too, some of which is explained in an enlightening Author’s Note along with some suggested further reading. I’m a fan of novels that fictionalise little known events and build something entirely new from slight evidence. Asking the ‘what if’ question is part of the fun of writing historical fiction after all. Lafaye has brought a divisive forgotten moment in American history to light and has done so with sensitivity and respect. 

At First Light is much more than ‘an epic love story’. It gives us a glimpse into a turbulent America on the brink of Prohibition, the experiences of troops returning from the horror of the WWI trenches, the devastating outbreak of the Spanish Flu, the Jim Crow culture of the Deep South and deeply ingrained attitudes that, some would say, still exist today. Lafaye makes all that accessible and thought-provoking with a remarkably light touch that doesn’t get bogged down. The story moves at pace but never feels hurried, matching the languid, tropical atmosphere. A perfect summer read, if you want depth and darkness alongside your romance.

At First Light is out on 1 June 2017, published by Orion.

Find out more about Vanessa at her website.

Katherine Clements is the author of The Crimson Ribbon and The Silvered Heart.

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