At First Light opens in 1993 with a murder in Key West. The victim is an elderly, wheelchair bound Klu Klux Klan official. The shooter, more surprisingly, is a 96 year old Cuban woman, Alicia Cortez, who will not say anything to the police except for ‘I did it. It was me.’ The answer lies in tragic events which took place over seventy years ago, just after the Great War, and there’s only one person that Alicia will share her story with.
The daughter of a Cuban father and an African mother, Alicia attracts plenty of attention when she arrives in Key West in 1919, fleeing scandal in Havana. Expecting employment in her cousin’s tea room, Alicia is horrified to learn that ‘Pearl’s Tea Room’ is in fact one of the nicer brothels in the area. Working with resentful prostitutes, and her mercenary cousin Beatriz, Alicia finds her place as best she can, until the Spanish influenza epidemic carries Beatriz away, and leaving her as the reluctant new madam of ‘Pearl’s Tea Room’.
Another new arrival is John Morales, a war hero returned from France, haunted by he’s seen and done in battle. He lands to discover that whilst he was away, his father has died, and that there’s talk of Prohibition in Key West. Reckless and dangerous, John is determined not to get tied down with anyone, but as he and Alicia find themselves unwilling partners in the covert struggle against Prohibition, an attraction develops, soon turning into love. It’s scandalous behaviour, indeed illegal under Jim Crow laws, but doesn’t worry too many people, until the Klan come to Key West. John is determined to fight for Alicia, but maybe this once, he’s picked a fight he can’t win.
Also present is young Dwayne Campbell, on the cusp of manhood, determined to prove himself to his Klansman father, but also to Alicia who he worships. Dwayne is desperate to please his father, but is torn by an unease about the Klan that he can’t shake. As the author explains in her note, At First Light is inspired by tragic events that were never resolved, yet the story wears its research lightly, giving an insight into how the Klan gained traction in the way that it did, and yet equally exposing its utter ridiculousness: “What in the world is a ‘klonklave’? And why did he call Pa a ‘Kludd’?” And yet despite this, their ideas are catching, and Dwayne makes a terrible mistake that will have repercussions for years to come.
Having loved Vanessa Lafaye’s incredible debut Summertime, I was looking forward to reading her latest. Both joyous and tragic in equal measure, it’s a beautiful told and intensely readable account of a little known and shameful incident of Southern US history. The characterisation is utterly spot on; the tension is built carefully and effectively to a heartbreaking and explosive conclusion. On a happier note, fans will be delighted to read more about Dwayne Campbell’s childhood (with a possible answer given to the identity of Roy’s real father). But history – reality – rears its ugly head throughout: as in Summertime, the author has no qualms in killing off the characters you have grown to care about, as a reminder that sometimes stories don’t go the way you want them to.
At First Light by Vanessa Lafaye is out now, published by Orion Books.