The Plot: ‘At Night All Blood is Black’ by David Diop is a literary novel set during the first world war. It centres two Senegalese soldiers who are fighting for the French in the trenches. The novel opens with Alfa as his best friend and ‘more-than-brother’ Mademba is killed in combat. Alfa decides to get revenge on the blue-eyed German soldier who killed Mademba, so he becomes savage and relentless as he devotes himself to violence and war. But regardless of how many Germans he kills, Alfa cannot help but blame himself for Mademba’s death. And, as the war goes on, he descends into madness in his quest for vengeance.
Rating: This is a masterful novel, which I’m giving four and a half stars. Translated from French to English by Anna Moschovakis, this book has won several awards including the International Booker Prize and the Prix Goncourt Des Lycéens. It certainly deserves all of these accolades and I think it definitely lived up to the hype. It’s a very short book (144 pages) and can be read in one sitting. However, I think its brevity is part of the reason for its impact. Each word is carefully chosen to depict the mental state of a soldier and the beautiful imagery will haunt you long after you finish it.
Good bits: The first-person narration and use of repetition was very effective to convey Alfa’s mental state. From the first page, you’re completely absorbed in the character’s world and the evocative imagery helps to heighten the internal feelings of sadness, rage and grief that consume Alfa. In particular, I loved the womb metaphors for the trenches and how they were connected to the woman that Alfa left behind in Senegal. Though the novel may seem to be meandering on the surface, I think it retains a clear underlying structure that keeps the reader engaged. The author drip-feeds the characters’ backstories through little details and flashbacks, and each revelation feels like a twist in the narrative.
Not so good bits: This book seems to perfectly encapsulate the author’s intention and sensibilities, so there’s nothing that I wish could’ve been changed and nothing to blame on a bad editor! I have a minor gripe about the ending. It was a bit too allegorical for me and I had to google its meaning, but this isn’t a major issue and it’s definitely not a reason to not to buy this book. Honestly, I’ve only docked half a star because of personal taste. I tend to reserve five stars for books that are exactly my cup of tea (to a ‘T’).
Overall: I’d recommend this book to lovers of literary, psychological novels with a lot of description and imagery. It would appeal to those who loved ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ by Erich Maria Remarque and ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ by Kurt Vonnegut. It’s a wonderful novel and a true translated gem, which I’d encourage everyone to read.