REVIEW: After ‘Summertime’ Vanessa Lafaye's new novel tells a story from the past that resonates with today's America

Written by Adrian Clarke on .


At First Light by Vanessa Lafaye (Published June 2017 by Orion)

If you like a really good story really well told, this is a book for you.  Vanessa Lafaye's second novel - At First Light - tells a fairly discomforting tale, but it tells it with a clarity and a pace that keeps you involved - and guessing.

It is a novel based on a news item from history - from the year the First World War ended.  It was probably just a News in Brief item and the author has woven around it a cast of easily understood and colourful characters inhabiting a place that generally seems somewhat monochrome and certainly bleakly sordid - Florida's Key West settlement.

The time she has chosen is crucial: the Great War is over, men are returning from fighting in France, prohibition is coming, the Ku Klux Klan is gathering strength, the Spanish flu pandemic is bringing its ugly way of death to Key West.  

Into this maelstrom comes Alicia - forced to flee her home in Cuba.  She is 'brown'. She is surprised and shocked to find herself managing a brothel.  She then surprises herself by falling in love with a war-damaged soldier.  He is white.  And their union provides an excuse for the KKK to mobilise.

Alicia Cortez takes over the brothel - which goes under the sly name of The Tea Room - from her aunt who has been killed by the Spanish flu.  Her lover, John Morales, runs a bar called - quaintly enough - The Last Resort.

With a tide of American patriotism running strongly after the war, the bar might have been called the last refuge.

Descriptions of place are sketches rather than street maps, but they still give the reader a clear picture of the frontier town world of Key West.  And what might in another hand become overblown and wordy, the set pieces are treated like the everyday stuff of life they must seem to be to At First Light's cast of characters.

One of Vanessa Lafaye's great skills is to write entirely objectively about the highly ethical and moral themes that surround these events.  She makes no judgment on them - a judgment which might sit uncomfortably with the customs and moral norms of the time she is writing about.  The moral point is made by the story as she reveals it.

This is a novel of retribution.  It is not a thriller, not a novel of simple revenge. It is a tragedy.  It has nothing to do with the traditions of Jacobean revenge tragedy, and a great deal to do with America's continuing and greatest stain - the racism that stretches across the centuries from the genocide against Native Americans to Trump.  Weren't his tweeted attacks on Mayor Sadiq Khan nothing more than pathetic playground racism?  After all they were not part of any normal President's everyday concern or tasks.

In 1918 the Klan are seeking to make America great again by killing or excluding everyone who is not white and protestant.  So they wage war against Jews, Catholics and anyone of colour - sowing the seeds of perpetual hate.

The title At First Light harks back to the executions of allegedly cowardly soldiers during the First World War.  They were shot at first light.  Others went 'over the top' at first light. But I think it also refers obliquely to the light of certainty that enters Alicia's world, late in life, to clear away the horrible and pitiable darkness that surrounded her relationship with John Morales.  

There are other themes threaded carefully and unobtrusively through the book.  Among them: the contrast between Cuba and Key West, Alicia's herbal healing, the acceptance of fairly uncivilised ways of life, and the ordinariness of life in both Tea Room and Last Resort.

Vanessa Lafaye's first novel, the very successful Summertime, featured a public lynching.  At First Light plays light on a wider canvas of racism - a canvas occupied then and now by the extremists of the KKK and their playground full of fellow travellers.  

There is a strong and sobering lesson in the tale of Alicia Cortez and John Morales, but it is a lesson told by Vanessa Lafaye with subtle control and written beautifully - in clear and compelling language.