|THE DARKEST HEART
Dan Smith (www.dansmithsbooks.com)
Orion Books (www.orionbooks.co.uk)
Having fled the slums of Rio de Janeiro as a much younger man, Zico now lives in a small town on the banks of Brazil’s Araguaia River. Here, Zico finds friendship and love and decides that Piratinga is the perfect place to settle down. Zico is a killer for hire, and his employer has one final job for him before he can retire to the life he so desires, one more kill. But this is a kill that weighs on Zico’s conscience, and makes him question his own nature. As we follow Zico down the river, through the heart of Brazil, we come to learn just who this young man is and who he has been. Facing dangers both natural and man-made, Zico’s last job may also result in his own death, and those of the people he loves the most.
There were times I felt I would always be death’s passenger.
From the moment we meet Zico, who narrates this dark and atmospheric story, it is clear that he is a man with troubles. A shadow follows him, the result of years as a killer, and it is one that he finds difficult to shake off. The promise of unheard-of sums of money for this one last job – money that will allow him to retire and forget about this dark present, and the even darker past – are enough to convince him to accompany his friend on his boat along the Rio das Mortes – the aptly-named River of Deaths – to the mines at Mina dos Santos.
The addition of two unexpected passengers – Zico’s girlfriend Daniella and the mysterious Leonardo, who is funding the trip to the mines – adds extra layers of complexity to this simple-seeming story, and allows for the vast majority of the story’s action to take place on board the Deus e o Diabo as they travel through the Brazilian forests. Zico and Leonardo clash immediately, two strong egos battling for control of this small piece of the world that they are forced to share for several days. There are many similarities between the two men, but Zico finds himself determined to prove that they are completely different, and this clash between the two men, in part, drives Zico’s quest for salvation, of which the trip becomes more and more a symbol as the story progresses.
One of the most important aspects of The Darkest Heart is the atmosphere that Dan Smith conjures through Zico’s voice. This is a story that could only take place in this remote and deadly location. The heat is palpable, the encroaching forest and the unknowns that lurk within as threatening to the reader as they are to the characters on the boat. Smith’s use of language is a wonder to behold: there are similarities to the simplicity and beauty of the writing of Gabriel García Márquez, and more obviously to the similar trip described in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. But Smith builds upon these solid foundations to create something that is undeniably original, a story that grips the reader from the first word to the last, and takes us through a rollercoaster of emotions as it carries us along the river.
The nature of the story means that, for the most part, the story revolves around the four central characters – Zico, Daniella, Leonardo and Raul, the old man who owns the boat. There are, of course, others who play much smaller roles, including the foreign nun that Zico has been hired to kill. Each of the characters comes to the story fully-formed and with more than the physical baggage that they carry onto the boat at the start of the journey. Despite the fact that we only get to see them through Zico’s eyes, he is an honest enough narrator that we are allowed to form our own opinions of who they are.
There are moments of pure adrenalin, unexpected interludes that will have the reader on the edge of their seat, breaking a sweat: an escape from piranha-infested water is one such moment, while the discovery of a dead body on the river bank, and the deserted village from which she escaped – however briefly – is perfectly-judged to leave the reader feeling cold and unsafe, even in the midst of the stifling heat that is a constant companion on the trip.
Beautiful and lyrical with a dark undercurrent of violence and terror, Dan Smith’s latest novel, The Darkest Heart, is a journey through the heart of Brazil in the company of a man of who is a self-professed killer. Perfectly paced and designed in a way that will leave the reader unsure, until the very last moment, as to the outcome of Zico’s trip, its strength lies in the characterisations and the evocation of this tropical and largely unknown part of the world. The Darkest Heart is my first experience with Dan Smith’s work; I’m confident that it won’t be my last, and would recommend the book without reservation.