1993, Key West, Florida. When a Ku Klux Klan official is shot in broad daylight, all eyes turn to the person holding the gun: a 96-year-old Cuban woman who will say nothing except to admit her guilt.
1919. Mixed-race Alicia Cortez arrives in Key West exiled in disgrace from her family in Havana. At the same time, damaged war hero John Morales returns home on the last US troop ship from Europe. As love draws them closer in this time of racial segregation, people are watching, including Dwayne Campbell, poised on the brink of manhood and struggling to do what’s right. And then the Ku Klux Klan comes to town. Inspired by real events, ‘At First Light’ weaves together a decades-old grievance and the consequences of a promise made as the sun rose on a dark day in American history.
Oh I just fell in love with this book right from the get go. As soon as I heard that Vanessa Lafaye had a second novel coming out and that it was a follow-on from the amazing ‘Summertime’ I just had to get my grabby booky hands on it. It can easily be read alone without having to read ‘Summertime’ BUT I recommend you read that anyway because it’s brilliant!
Based on true events, we follow Alicia Cortez as she arrives in Key West fresh off the boat from Cuba, sent there by her parents after a scandal in her marriage. I was immediately drawn to Alicia, she has to find her feet in a strange new country and things are very different. She is staying with her cousin Beatriz who runs a tea room, and the shock of the tea room turning out to be a brothel is just the start of Alicia’s journey.
There are a whole host of interesting and colourful characters. Alongside Alicia, another character I was drawn to and felt great sympathy for was young Dwayne, he is desperate for his father’s approval and desperate to do the right thing, but that leads him down an unfortunate path that changes the lives of everyone around him.
I love a read that will teach me something and ‘At First Light’ did that. It’s set during a dark period of history with the uprising of the Ku Klux Klan in Key West. What I didn’t realise about them, and this is particularly true of the Klan of the Keys featured in this book, was the fact they were not just anti-black people, they were also against Jewish people and Catholics. I also didn’t realise the ridiculous pomp and ceremony the Klan meetings involved – it’s laughable.
I was completely enthralled by this book, the pages just turn themselves. There’s never a dull moment in Alicia’s tale. This story is beautifully told, it’s emotive, passionate and heart breaking. It comes highly recommended from me. Also I just have to mention that I completely loved the little hummingbird illustrations between the sections of the book, there are just the most perfect addition to the story.
BOOKISH CORNER RATING – 5/5 STARS
Vanessa Lafaye was born in Tallahassee and raised in Tampa, Florida. She first came to the UK in 1987 looking for adventure, and found it. After spells of living in Paris and Oxford, she now lives in Marlborough, Wiltshire, with her husband. Vanessa leads the local community choir, and music and writing are big parts of her life.
‘At First Light’ is out now in hardback published by Orion. With a big thank you to Elaine Egan at Orion for my review copy.
If ‘At First Light’ holds you in its grasp then you should try these too:
‘Calling Me Home’ by Julie Kibler
‘Summertime’ by Vanessa Lafaye
‘Homegoing’ by Yaa Gyasi
‘The Separation’ by Dinah Jefferies