Carson McCullers once drew a comparison between two seemingly disparate types of literature: Southern Gothic and Russian realist. Both, she argued, juxtapose the grotesque and the sublime, and focus largely on death, cruelty, poverty and acute social divisions — what she called “the cheapness of life.”

“Lights All Night Long,” Lydia Fitzpatrick’s formidably accomplished debut novel, plays out in the South (specifically Louisiana) and a town in Russia, and manages to encompass all of the above. But the book is not all doom and gloom. Los Angeles-based Fitzpatrick sharply examines the cheapness of life while at the same time flagging up and homing in on various redemptive riches, from brotherly bonds to cross-cultural relations to the pursuit of justice.

Her hero, 15-year-old Ilya, arrives in Baton Rouge with all his worldly possessions in an army duffel. He is met at the airport by the Mason family and taken to their home. Desperately missing his older brother Vladimir, who is languishing in prison back in Russia, and disoriented by his new surroundings, Ilya clams up, feigns ignorance, and refuses to talk: “speaking English felt like cutting the last thread of a fraying rope.”

Fitzpatrick starts off cryptically, revealing and concealing in equal measure. Gradually, however, she sheds some light. Ilya is a gifted student whose proficiency in English has secured him a year in America on an exchange program. Vladimir is going nowhere, having confessed to murdering three women. Ilya is convinced of his innocence: His brother stole and did drugs but he was no killer. After finding his tongue and confiding in his host parents’ daughter Sadie, he enlists her help and begins his quest to track down the real culprit and exonerate Vladimir.

The narrative shuttles between Russia in the past and America in the present. We are transported to the former gulag town where both brothers grew up, “a place born of forced and false confessions.” Against the odds, Ilya thrives. Vladimir, on the other hand, slides from rebel to delinquent to lost cause, and then, when completely out of his depth, to possible scapegoat.

Over in small-town Louisiana, Ilya adapts to a different way of life. Fitzpatrick judiciously keeps the culture shocks to a minimum, prioritizing instead Ilya’s quest to right a wrong and his deepening feelings for kindred spirit and fellow black sheep Sadie, a woman who, we realize, has family secrets of her own. Ilya and Sadie, “together in their separateness,” form a united front in the America sections; in the equally captivating Russia sections, Ilya has to stand on his own two feet as Vladimir leaves his side and loses his way.

Few debut novels are so tightly plotted and powerfully written. On what turns out to be a gripping, emotional journey, Ilya learns about love, home and belonging, and discovers that “the world, even America, was a tangle of lives, all twisted and bent.”

 

Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the New Republic. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.