Lead Review (a powerful and gripping tale)
- Book: At First Light
- Location: Key West
- Author: Vanessa Lafaye
I loved Vanessa Lafaye’s 2015 debut novel, Summertime, which was set in the Florida Keys in the 1930s. Here, she returns to the same area at a slightly earlier period and again takes a real historical event as her starting point, this time an unsolved murder in which the Ku Klux Klan were heavily implicated. Sometimes, second novels fail to live up to the promise of the first. Not so here; At First Light was every bit as good, if not better, than Summertime.
Alicia Cortez, beautiful mixed-race native of Havana, is in disgrace and sent to Key West, Florida, to start a new life. She arrives at the same time as a US troop ship, bringing home wounded soldiers, one of whom is John Morales, the hero of the novel. Alicia, naïve in the extreme, believes that she is going to work for her cousin in a tea shop but quickly discovers that “tea shop” is a euphemism for whorehouse. When her cousin dies from Spanish flu, leaving Alicia in charge of the “tea shop”, she turns to Morales, who runs the bar next door, for support, and a romance develops between the two. But this is a time of complete racial segregation with many eyes watching John and Alicia developing relationship and then the Ku Klux Klan rears its ugly pointed head in the town …
Lafaye’s real skill lies in putting flesh on the bare bones of an historical event and breathing life into it. To say that it is well researched is a massive understatement; from the Further Reading section at the end of the novel the reader can see that Lafaye has studied every aspect of life at the time. As a result, we are allowed to walk with Alicia as she makes her way through the filth and stench of the sewage on the quayside, to recoil, as she does, from the cockroach-covered kitchen floor, to delight in the beauty of the hummingbird as it sips from the hibiscus flower and to feel in the pit of our stomach the fear that is engendered by the arrival of the white clothed figures of Ku Klux Klan.
This is masterful writing: Lafaye’s characterisation is superb – Alicia and Morales are complex, fully rounded characters who develop as the novel progresses and the host of other characters are also all skilfully drawn. Really good novels teach as well as entertain and At First Light gives us a brilliant insight into the ingrained attitudes of the Deep South on the brink of prohibition, struggling through the aftermath of the war and a Spanish flu epidemic. But, above all, this is a powerful, gripping tale that will keep you reading, keen to find out how it will end, despite the fact that you entertain little hope of a happy ending.