THE PLOT: ‘What the Fireflies Knew’ by Kai Harris is a coming-of-age novel set in 1995. Ten-year-old Kenyatta’s life is falling apart. Her father just died of a drug overdose and the debt incurred by his addiction means they’ve lost their family home. Unable to cope, her mother sends both Kenyatta and her teenage sister, Nia, to live with their estranged grandfather for the summer. But it feels like Nia is pulling away – more interested in boys than mourning their father – and her grandfather is quiet and cold. As Kenyatta finds solace in her favourite book (Anne of Green Gables) she must find her own voice and fix her family.

RATING: Four stars for this beautiful, moving novel. The voice of the main character really stole the show and I truly believed in her age and emotionality. It’s a very interior book, which made it feel slow to start. However, once I got immersed in the gorgeous setting, I read most of the second half in one sitting. Warning – there are some heart-breaking scenes which deal with sexual abuse, drug addiction and racism. However, these are so powerful and important to explore in fiction. I’m so happy to have read this and will keep an eye out for Kai Harris’s future novels.

GOOD BITS: The voice of the main character, strength of the writing and beauty of the setting are what really blew me away. Firstly, Kenyatta is a loveable main character who is full of warmth and affection. Her love of books and determination means everyone who reads this novel will fall in love with her. Secondly, the writing is outstanding and I think Kenyatta’s voice is testament to Harris’s skill. Finally, the imagery was so strong that I felt like I was living amongst the house and the garden during a long, lazy, hot summer.

NOT SO GOOD BITS: There isn’t a ton of plot so I found it slow to start. Although the first fifty pages gripped me, I wondered whether the novel was going anywhere as it started to flatline. However, the second half picked up and I read most of it in one sitting. The slow pace was compounded by the long chapters. At almost 300 pages, there are only ten chapters so it’s not easy to dip in and out. This fits the character-driven nature of the novel – it forces the reader to immerse themselves in the world. However, this isn’t one for a casual read.

OVERALL: I’d recommend this book to lovers of ‘Sing, Unburied, Sing’ by Jesmyn Ward, ‘Memphis’ by Tara M. Stringfellow and ‘Genesis Begins Again’ by Alicia D.Williams. They’re all soulful, character-driven books with a young Black person fighting against the odds. And, most importantly, they all make you think about the world and your place in it. This is another book from my Black Debut Authors 2022 list and it certainly didn’t disappoint.

Buy What the Fireflies Knew here:

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