In the first chapter of Lights All Night Long, gifted Russian teenager Ilya has just arrived in the U.S. for an academic exchange year. At the Baton Rouge airport, he refuses to speak English to his host family, the good-natured Masons: “As they waited for him to say something, their faces were so wide open, so vulnerable with hope. He knew the expression because he had imagined them having it, when he was vulnerable with hope too. But now Vladimir was in prison, and Ilya hadn’t imagined the guilt these strange, smiling faces would call up in him.”
Vladimir, Ilya’s older brother, confessed to a series of grisly murders in their small Russian hometown, a former gulag whose landscape is still marred by the Soviet Union’s collapse. But Ilya doesn’t believe drug-addicted Vladimir could have done such terrible things. Despite Ilya’s years of hard work in school and months preparing for his year in Louisiana, the polyurethane gleam of America—a place the brothers had dreamed they would take by storm together—is dulled completely for Ilya by the plight of his family left behind. With the exception of the Mason’s eldest daughter, the coltishly gorgeous Sadie, who wears her own secrets like a cloak, nothing in America interests Ilya as much as poring over internet clues each night. Ilya is trying—from a heart-bruising distance—to prove his brother’s innocence.
Lights All Night Long is that rare work of fiction that gathers page-turning momentum from its prose as much as its plot. Fitzpatrick’s writing, accessible yet exquisite, relies on surgically precise metaphors for a lot of heavy emotional lifting. As the increasingly jaded Ilya considers the price he may pay for throwing away a chance for a year in the U.S., “America burst into his brain like something held too long underwater, and with it the same huge hope.” After kissing an American girl, “he could still feel it—that happiness for him was like a dog chained to a stake, that whenever he let it run, he’d be yanked back, but still he let it run for a second and tried not to brace himself for the pull of the chain.”
Darkly beautiful, melancholic but not bleak, Lights All Night Long is storytelling at its finest. Fitzpatrick has written a compelling novel full of intimately portrayed, easy-to-love characters whose spoiled joys and resurgent hopes will linger with readers.