Powerful blend of suspense, mystery, and real issues, 4.5 stars
Sarah Smith's young adult debut, THE OTHER SIDE OF DARK, combines just the right amount of mystery, suspense, and ghost story into a historical fiction narrative that packs an emotional punch. Growing up as the son of his black professor father and his white architect mother, Law feels increasingly pulled between them and their professional and racial identities. Ever since her mother died tragically, Katie has also been pulled in two directions - between the world of the living and that of the dead who she now sees and draws. When Law discovers that Katie knows more than reasonably possible about the old mansion he wants to save from demolition, the two teens are drawn together to learn more about each other, the ugly history that surrounds them, and how their decisions can impact both the past and the present.
While the book's back cover suggested a paranormal romance with some "real" issues mixed in, THE OTHER SIDE OF DARK blew me away with its powerhouse combination of mystery, suspense, and romance to tell a story about self-identity, grief, history, racism , and slavery. Smith expertly uses the supernatural backdrop to demonstrate that the scariest things we can fear are real and human-created, not the ghosts that may surround us. As main characters, Law and Katie are sympathetic and their struggles genuine. The characters' development shows the complexity and awkwardness expected by two teens trying to define themselves in spite of, or in relation to, their parents. Consistent pacing and plotting move the story forward, and a complete story arc wraps up in the last 50 pages with an incredibly moving end. The author also excels in her descriptions about architecture, Katie's drawings, and the ghosts Katie sees. The author's obviously well-researched history about slavery also makes the story even more poignant because of the reader's ability to acknowledge that similar things have happened in our real past.
Though an incredibly strong book overall, the romantic relationship between Law and Katie was not as grabbing as I had hoped; the progression of their emotional and physical intimacy seemed jumpy and unrealistic at times. There were also moments of awkward dialogue, and a few sentences here and there didn't make sense and felt dropped in. These small blips took very little away from the emotional impact of the story, however.
Even if THE OTHER SIDE OF DARK wasn't what I expected, I was delighted and moved when it was so much more. Very rarely do novels so deftly combine an engaging and suspenseful plot with an examination of social and historical issues that impact us all. This is a great book for all readers, especially teens who may be struggling with how their heritage and past defines them and who they want to be. I look forward to any other books that Smith brings us in the future.
Note: This review refers to an advance reader's copy.