It’s a strange, unsettling kind of beauty that only people who have spent much time in oil towns are familiar with — the lights of the refineries, bright and ghostly, that light up the area around them all night long, bathing the houses and nature nearby with an eerie glow.
Ilya, the 15-year-old protagonist of Los Angeles author Lydia Fitzpatrick’s remarkable debut novel, “Lights All Night Long,” has never known a world without them. They illuminated the small Russian town where he grew up; they cast a constant light on the Louisiana town where he’s moved as an exchange student.
Ilya was initially excited to leave his hometown to strike out for America, but he’s found himself unable to enjoy his time in the new country — shortly before he moved, his brother, Vladimir, was arrested in the deaths of three young women in their community. Ilya believes Vladimir to be innocent, despite his brother having confessed to the slayings.
In America, Ilya does his best to navigate high school, all the while nursing a crush on Sadie, the oldest daughter of his host family, who is enigmatic, “separate from her family. Self-contained.” He feels a kinship with the teenage girl but is wary of getting too close: “He wasn’t deluded enough to think that they were together in their separateness, but at least they were similar for it.”
Ilya initially keeps his brother’s arrest hidden from his host family, eventually telling Sadie, who shares with the young man a secret of her own. He enlists her help in trying to prove his brother’s innocence, even as he grapples with unresolved anger over his drug-addled brother’s life choices: “He was angry at whoever had killed the girls. ... But most of all he was angry at Vladimir, for becoming the sort of person who got addicted, convicted, who confessed to things he hadn’t done, because no one would believe the truth from him.”
Fitzpatrick does so many things right in “Lights All Night Long,” it’s hard to believe it’s a debut novel. As a mystery, it’s paced perfectly, with the novel moving seamlessly back and forth in time between Ilya’s life in Russia and his new one in America. Fitzpatrick proves to be an expert at building suspense; it’s hard not to read the book in a single sitting.
She also avoids falling into well-worn tropes or clichés of fiction. Ilya undergoes understandable culture shock when he trades the frozen plains of Russia for the humid bayous of Louisiana, but Fitzpatrick doesn’t cast him as a fish-out-of-water archetype; she handles both cultures, and Ilya’s transition between them, with intelligence and sensitivity.
Similarly, Fitzpatrick treats the blossoming relationship between Ilya and Sadie with admirable realism — it’s a realistic depiction of two young people at loose ends, turning to each other to try to stave off the desperation that’s threatened to take over their lives. But she’s at her best when depicting the uneasy love that Ilya and Vladimir have for each other. It’s tricky to capture the specific, sometimes difficult language that brothers use to let each other know they care, but Fitzpatrick manages to do so perfectly, and it makes their relationship all the more beautiful and affecting.
“Lights All Night Long” is both an expertly crafted mystery and a dazzling debut from an author who’s truly attuned to how families work at their darkest moments. Fitzpatrick does a beautiful job transporting the reader to Russia and Louisiana, and into the lives of young people whose hearts are near bursting with both love and anxiety. It’s an excellent novel from an author who seems to be at the beginning of an impressive career.
Penguin Press, 352 pp., $27
Lydia Fitzpatrick at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books: Fitzpatrick appears at 3 p.m. April 13 in conversation with David Francis, Janet Fitch and Rebecca Makkai.