Having loved Summertime, the debut novel of Florida-born Vanessa Lafaye, I was looking forward to reading At First Light. I was not disappointed. As with her first book, Florida in the period after the Great War is the setting. But the story starts with a bang in 1993 when an elderly Ku Klux Klan official is shot dead at a rally in Key West. The murderer is a 96-year old Cuban woman. At First Light is the story of Alicia Cortez.
This is an intense story in many ways. Love, politics, racial hatred, prostitution and Prohibition. In 1919 Alicia arrives on a boat from Cuba, running from shame though for a while we don’t know the exact details. On the same day, John Morales disembarks from the troop ship which brought him from Europe where he fought with distinction in the Great War. Watching from the dock is fourteen-year-old Dwayne Campbell, who falls a little in love with Alicia, is in awe of John, and who becomes entangled in what is about to unfold. When John, a white man, a local man, is seen with a ‘brown’ stranger, Alicia, the newly established Klan of the Keys takes notice.
Although we know from page one that Alicia shoots someone, we do not know the identity of the victim. As she will not talk to the police, her motivation is unknown. So as the story of her arrival in Key West in 1919 unfolds, the guessing game begins as the Ku Klux Klan plans its attacks. This story segment takes place over a short few months and the speed at which events unfold is mesmerising. There are many thematic contrasts: the beauty of the location, the poverty and depravation; the global politics of war, the local politics run by corrupt men; the lack of women’s rights, the moral and emotional strength of women.
Inspired by a true story – the murder by the Ku Klux Klan of a white man in 1921 because he refused to end his relationship with a mixed-race woman – this is a novel about freedom. The freedoms fought for in war which are too often, and too rapidly, forgotten in daily life when hate is allowed to overcome tolerance and people become too quick to judge. And once a wrong is committed, who has the right to determine the nature of justice and how it should be implemented? Once the police cannot be trusted, the disintegration of society begins.
I read this book very quickly and didn’t want it to end. Second novels are often a disappointment, this one is not.
Read my review of Summertime by Vanessa Lafaye.
‘At First Light’ by Vanessa Lafaye [UK: Orion] Buy at Amazon
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