1993 Key West in Florida, a ninety six year old Cuban woman walks into a park and shoots a Ku Klux Klan official at point blank range. When arrested all she will say is that she is guilty of the murder.
1919 Key West Florida is a different world. Alicia Cortez, a mixed race young woman, arrives by ferry from Cuba after being sent away by her family in disgrace. The ferry pulls into the port at the same time as troopship bringing home soldiers from Europe who were fighting in World War One. On board is hardened soldier John Morales, looking forward to getting back to his bar. Back on dry land, John finds himself drawn to the beautiful young Cuban woman. They begin a relationship that is seen as unorthodox in a time where racial segregation was still a way of life. Their lives are further complicated with the arrival of the Klu Klux Klan, and they find themselves and those they love in danger.
At First Light is a stunning novel that recaptures a period of American Culture of extreme violence and prejudice. Vanessa Lafaye’s writing and vivid descriptions bring the Key West off 1919 to life. We feel the heat of the sun, we smell the sewage and smell of unwashed bodies, and see the brothels, bars, houses and people with such clarity that we feel like we are there. The same writing brings the characters to life. Alicia is the heroine of this book. She arrives in Key West from Cuba where she lived a privileged life and was accepted as a mixed race young woman. In Key West, where segregation is part of life, as a woman of mixed race she is neither dark or white skinned which makes her worse in some ways than those of colour, she is neither one nor the other. Not only is race a problem she finds herself living in a brothel, a big change from the luxuries she is used to in Cuba. Alicia rises to the occasion and shows strength and resilience, in her attitude to the situation she finds herself in. It is her strength and her love for John that comes through in this book, and her fight against prejudice. I found the character of Dwayne a symbol of hope in this story. Like most young boys he seeks his father’s approval and love and wants to believe him to be a good man. When his father becomes a member of the Klu Klux Klan he wants to believe their ideology, on the premise that if his father is part of this then it must be right and just. But the more he hears and the more he sees make him question both his father and the KKK. He is able to work out for himself and take action and to do the right thing, he is a symbol of the future in his ability to walk away from prejudice of his others and make his own mind up.
At First Light is a book that tackles the issues of prejudice, based on religion, race, gender, and a hatred of those who are different. What makes it more shocking is that it is based on a true story. It was strange that I was reading this this weekend with the Manchester One Love Benefit Concert after the bomb in Manchester and attack in London, it really resonated with me that as a society we still have the same prejudices. Maybe the way hatred is shown has changed but we still live in a world where there are certain sections of society who are still intolerant and use terror to kill. I have to say I find this quite a sad comparison to make.
At First Light is a very emotive read, for the reader and the characters; it has love and hate, strength and weakness, revenge and forgiveness, hope and despair. It’s atmospheric prose, colourful characters, and its uplifting and heartbreaking story line make it the perfect read, a brilliant book.