Author: Stephen Kearse
Title: In the Heat of the Light
Publisher: Kindred Books
Plot: The book documents the rise and fall of an Atlanta graffiti crew. Set during a brutally hot Atlanta summer, the novel chronicles how each member of the crew reacts to the aftermath of their biggest tag, an audacious defacement of Georgia’s Stone Mountain. As the crew gradually unravels, two FBI agents attempt to untangle the knot of rage and confusion that led to the tag, surveying Atlanta’s underbelly in the process and becoming entangled themselves.
This novel explores the topography of Atlanta in vivid detail, dwelling in the city’s lesser-known corridors and assembling the city’s various ghosts — the Civil War, Jim Crow, the 1996 Olympics, the slum clearance of the 50s, and the Civil Rights Movement — alongside the city’s modern currents — gentrification, Black Lives Matter, traffic, and trap music. Five Atlanta teenagers choose between property and the commons when neither is immediately available to them, a heightened dilemma in this age of mass surveillance and income inequality.
I received In the Heat of the Light from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. All thoughts and opinions are my own.
In an attempt to broaden my reading – and reviewing – range, I requested In the Heat of the Light, despite it sounding different to my usual style. I wanted to enjoy this: it addresses culturally themes as well as some important movements the modern day audience can relate to, including Black Lives Matter.
There was only one problem… I got a little bored.
The plot was slow-paced, with long descriptions of the locations making it feel more like you were going on a road-trip rather than exploring what makes these characters react the way they do. I stopped paying attention as streets were named – possibly interesting if you lived in or know Atlanta but when it’s just names, you start to lose focus.
The characters were the problem for me. It wasn’t that there was anything wrong per se but you’re never given a chance to connect with them, get to know their motives or engage with their personalities on an emotional level. Quite simply, I didn’t care. One in particular – Apollo – seems fairly mild for the most part, then there is a twist in his character that seems too extreme to be believable.
The narration switches between the group, plus an FBI agent. With it being such a short book, this changing perspective distanced the characters. Without being able empathise with them, their actions were random.
They looked like a successful dodgeball team: triumphant, but united in lameness.
Dialogue was also a tricky one for me. There were phrases that the teenagers were using that made me a little uncomfortable reading. Maybe it is how teenagers in Atlanta speak but without knowing that culture, it was jarring.
Tilly – the FBI agent – was particularly problematic. The relationship and motives behind her and her partner seem vague to say the least. When her partner suddenly seems to go completely off the rails – shooting and killing an unarmed teenager before threatening an entire group of them – the last thing I expected was for Tilly to go along with it because she’s career driven. Even that wouldn’t be so bad if you could actually feel some of her emotions. There’s nothing there to engage with.
Lack of characterisation aside, the plot is fairly straightforward: a group of bored teenagers try and rebel against the system by hacking a satellite and using it to graffiti a monument. Again, it seems extreme and might have worked if the reasoning wasn’t just that one wanted to get revenge on an ex-employer (and then have a crisis of confidence afterwards).
This is a short book that is an easy read. If you’re looking for something to fill an afternoon and want to know a little more about Atlanta, maybe it will be an enjoyable read. But if you’re looking for something emotive, or even with any depth, I’m not sure this is the right book.
I was disappointed. I wanted to get so much more from it. Perhaps fewer characters might have worked, giving us a chance to get to know at least one of them better. Not for me.