Review: The Light That Gets Lost by Natasha Carthew

Margot McGovern reviews Natasha Carthew’s gritty YA novel, The Light That gets Lost (Bloomsbury, 2015).

Trey … looked down towards camp and he looked beyond mere mere looking and saw the blue come clean and clear above their heads. ‘Feels like something’s been lost and found again.’
‘Like the light,’ said Kay and she started to pack the nothing bits that surrounded them into her sack bag.
‘What you say?’
‘Int that what Lamby says? It’s science, somethin bout scattered light, the purer the sky the deeper the blue we’re set for, the blue is the light that gets lost.’
‘Why’s the light lost?’ asked Trey.
‘The light at the blue end of the spectrum don’t travel the whole way from the sun to us. It dissolves amongst the molecules in the air.’
Trey shrugged and there was something in her words that made sense. ‘Spose a lot’s been lost in all of us.’ He nodded towards the wandering kids below them. Something of innocence had been separated from them all, separated and damaged and lost.

Hiding in a cupboard among his family’s winter coats, seven-year-old Trey witnesses the murder of his parents and near-murder of his brother: ‘A house fallen silent with three shots, four just about.’

Something in the dark claimed the boy that night. A needling hook of skulking roots that pulled him towards some other place; an underhanded, underground grasp. A little demon settling someplace deep inside, a flickerflame moving, growing in size. 

Eight years later, the demon inside Trey is driving him towards revenge. He knows that the man who sent his parents to an early grave and his brother to a nursing home is a man of the cloth and works at Camp Kernow—a work farm for delinquent youths. Trey has committed a crime to earn a place in the camp, determined that ‘This was the place where things were about to rewind to the point of wrong and settle back right.’

Trey believes avenging his parents death will be a simple in-out mission and he’ll soon be on his way to emancipate his brother. However, revenge is not the salve he imagines, Camp Kernow is not what it seems and while infiltrating the camp was easy, no kid has ever escaped and Trey is quick to make enemies within the electrified fences.

When Trey’s bunkmate, Lamby, sees something he shouldn’t order within the camp begins to break down. The teenagers are left to fend for themselves, with bully-boy Wilder and his goons taking up residence in the farmhouse and controlling the rations. As the need for escape  becomes a matter of life and death, Trey teams up with tough-talking, pragmatic Kay, chatter-box Lamby and a pair of mute but meaty twins to take on Wilder and his gang and find a way out of the camp.

The Light That Gets Lost is a thinking reader’s dystopia: a story of innocence lost too soon; of revenge, corruption and power; of systems that prioritise money over people, but also a story of friendship and loyalty.

Dystopian YA is getting boring. It’s starting to read like the same story told over and over in page-flipping prose with the names and places switched up. The genre is crowded with books screaming for film adaptations; indeed, some authors are even thanking people associated with the yet-to-be-made Hollywood blockbusters in their acknowledgements (ahem, Red Queen). The Light That Gets Lost is a quiet but compelling story shining through the clamour. It’s also a story firmly (and refreshingly) rooted in the real. It’s aesthetic is drawn from mud and rain and blood. Camp Kernow is a factory farm—a slaughterhouse—worked by teenagers. The story is set in the near future, but it’s a future devoid of gimmicky gadgetry. When teenagers come to fighting, they use the tools at hand: boiling water, scythes, homemade spears and the sinew and strength of their own fists. It’s a narrative of survival rather than revolution, of how quickly order descends into chaos. And it cuts away social norms to reveal humanity in it’s raw and primal state: the violence we’re capable of, but also the loyalty and love.

For all it’s grimness, The Light That Gets Lost carries an element of make-believe: children playing at war—a game until it’s not. It brings to mind pre-Hunger Games dystopias: William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and (closer to home) John Marsden’s ‘Tomorrow’ series. In fact, if anything, Camp Kernow felt a little too reminiscent of Golding’s island of lost boys.

If the story seems well-trod, no matter; the genius lies in its telling. Carthew writes in a Cornish dialect, with her own invented slang scattered throughout. It gives the story a distinct rhythm and voice: rough and taciturn—not a word wasted—yet coloured with inventive imagery and striking turns of phrase. The Light That Gets Lost is one of the most lyrical YA novels I’ve stumbled across in a long time.

The Light That Gets Lost is a raw and uncensored read. It’s characters are damaged and flawed. They come to Camp Kernow from dark places. They hurt themselves. They hurt each other. And their world is grim; spilled blood is their most vibrant source of colour. It’s a forceful, intelligent read: violent and bleak but edged with resilience and hope.

Thank you to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. 

The Light That Gets Lost cover

The Light That Gets Lost is out 11 November 2015 and is available for pre-order through Amazon (Kindle), Book Depository and Kobo.

If you enjoyed The Light That gets Lost, these titles might also tickle your fancy:

Lord of the Flies tomorrow-war-began How I live Now
Lord of the Flies by William Golding, available:

Tomorrow When the War Began by John Marsden, available:

How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff, available:

Code Name Verity One Day in the Life Animal Farm
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, available:

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzenitsyn, available:

Animal Farm by George Orwell, available:

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