In the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake a boy is trapped beneath the rubble of a ruined hospital: thirsty, terrified and alone. 'Shorty' is a child of the slums, a teenage boy who has seen enough violence to last a lifetime, and who has been inexorably drawn into the world of the gangsters who rule Site Soleil: men who dole out money with one hand and death with the other. But Shorty has a secret: a flame of revenge that blazes inside him and a burning wish to find the twin sister he lost five years ago. And he is marked. Marked in a way that links him with Toussaint L'Ouverture, the Haitian rebel who two-hundred years ago led the slave revolt and faced down Napoleon to force the French out of Haiti. As he grows weaker, Shorty relives the journey that took him to the hospital, a bullet wound in his arm. In his visions and memories he hopes to find the strength to survive, and perhaps then Toussaint can find a way to be free ... (Synopsis from Goodreads)
Sometimes it's the books that are the most difficult to catagorise or pigeon-hole that are the ones worth seeking out. I wouldn't describe this as either contemporary YA or historical YA, yet it contains elements of both and manages to fuse them to make something quite unique. It annoys me when people sometimes describe UKYA as 'gritty', maybe because what is perhaps intended to come across as edginess only ends up sounding forced and might as well have LET'S TALK ABOUT ALL THE ISSUES plastered across the cover. But not only could this be described as 'gritty' (I wouldn't use that word personally), but reading it almost felt like I was picking bits of the grit from open wounds. This is a good thing, by the way.
I'm struggling to think of a YA book I've read that's come close to this in terms of unflinching power. Emotion, yes, but it's the combination of subject matter and the unapologetic way it conveys it that's pretty damn amazing. Put it this way, anyone who thinks of young adult fiction as 'fluffy' needs to read this - it's about as fluffy as heavy-duty sandpaper. And the prose is just so skilled - switching between the two completely different voices of Shorty and Toussaint and remaining utterly convincing with both, for example. Sometimes, when I'm reading a book, I think along the lines 'oh, that's fantastic writing, I can see what they did there' which is great, but the whole point of fantastic writing is, in my opinion, for it to completely submerge me in a book so I shouldn't even notice these things. And, for the most part, this book did just that...eventually...
Which brings me to the downside of picking up such a powerful read, and I think this probably is more a criticism of my reading habits than the book itself. I've talked about this in previous posts - my concentration when it comes to reading isn't quite what it was and it's very rare that I actually get the opportunity to sit down and lose myself in a story. I think this book requires that of the reader to fully appreciate it. I kept having to dip in and out and as a consequence, the impact was a bit lost. It was only when I was getting to the last third that it really took its hold.
Like I said before, I think he really nailed the two voices of Shorty and Toussaint perfectly, but for me, sometimes the switching back and forth slowed down the action, especially in Shorty's tale. As much as I loved the story behind Haiti's independence, it was Shorty's struggle in the aftermath of the earthquake and the recounting of the loss of his innocence that had the real emotional pull for me.
So if you're thinking about reading this one, set aside a few hours without interruption and let these words consume from the inside out. That's much more appealing than it sounds.
Oh, and tissues. Don't forget tissues. You will need them. Plenty of tears and snot. Nice.