[…] his own secrets had made him myopic, made him forget that the world, even America, was a tangle of lives, all twisted and bent.Lights All Night Long by Lydia Fitzpatrick
A debut novel by the American writer whose work has appeared in The O. Henry Prize Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories and One Story amongst others, Lights All Night Long by Lydia Fitzpatrick is a dark tale set between the juxtaposing worlds of a tiny Eastern Russian town and the glitzy world of America where malls abound and swimming pools are a common occurrence in the average American household. Ilya has arrived for his year abroad programme in an American high school. Meeting his host family for the first time, he is struck dumb by the events that have brought him there. A childhood dream he shared with his older brother, Vladimir, Ilya cannot believe he has made it, though the circumstances are less than perfect.
Fitzpatrick doesn’t give away too much too soon. Through flashbacks, Ilya’s past in Russia comes to life. Living in a small, decrepit town which was once the site of Russia’s mining future, Ilya lived in a tiny apartment in the Communalkas, or communal flats – a relic of their Soviet past – with his mother, Babushka and Vladimir. A town that lags far behind the rest of the Western world, Berlozhniki seems to exist only in relation to the oil refinery that lights up the town twenty-four seven. Owned by a Russian oligarch, the refinery is a constant presence in the novel and sits in stark contrast to the poverty surrounding it. From a young age Ilya showed promise in learning English. His teacher, Maria Mikhailovna, saw this promise and nurtured it for years. When the oil company decides to fund an exchange programme between School #17 and a school in America, Maria Mikhailovna puts Ilya’s name forward.
Ilya has always been hardworking, but he has also been devoted to his older brother who gradually falls into the path of many youths in Berlozniki with nothing to do and no prospects to motivate them. Getting deeper and deeper into drugs, Vladimir moves further away from his family and Ilya is heartbroken. Just before he leaves for America his world is rocked even further when the murders of three women are linked back to Vladimir.
At times I found Fitzpatrick’s debut a riveting tale of intrigue as we follow Ilya down memory lane. Trying to fit the pieces together thousands of miles away in a new place, Ilya is certain there is a message to be found in Vladimir’s supposed confession. In his conviction of Vladimir’s innocence, Ilya confides in Sadie, the elder daughter of his host family. Opening up about his difficult past, Ilya forms a new connection that gives him the strength to forge forward with his belief. It’s this relationship that almost pushes Lights All Night Long into the genre of YA, which grated on me at times.
Fitzpatrick’s debut is so much about the relationship between Ilya and his brother in Russia, which is vividly described and pulses with life, that the characters in America seem flat in comparison. I didn’t invest too much in Sadie and her parents and, as a result, didn’t enjoy these interjections as much. Instead I wanted to know more about Vladimir, their mother, Maria Mikhailovna, Aksinya and Lana. Surprisingly, for a novel written by an American, it was the Russian sections that felt more realistic to me. The America depicted in Lights All Night Long came across more as a parody of the images you see in American dramas and films. I also had a few issues with the ending, which I won’t say too much about other than that it all wrapped up too neatly for my liking.
Lights All Night Long by Lydia Fitzpatrick is published on 2nd April 2019. Thank you to Penguin Press, via Netgalley, for the review copy.