Lights Out in the Reptile House by Jim Shepard
Open Road Media edition: 12/22/15
eBook review copy; 285 pages
Lights Out in the Reptile House by Jim Shepard is a highly recommended coming-of-age novel set in an unnamed totalitarian state.
Karel Roeder is a fifteen year old who
works part time at the reptile house in the local zoo and has an
unspoken love for his neighbor, Leda. Karel main interest is in reptiles
and the herpetologist-in-training is
learning what he can from Albert, the older man who is in charge of the
reptile house at the zoo. Karel has no interest in politics, but
circumstances are forcing him to take note of what is going on in his
The unnamed country is a totalitarian regime that combines elements of Chile
under its military regime, South Africa under apartheid, and Italy
under fascism. Karel notes that people are being watched, turned in by
others, taken in for questioning and disappearing. He knows that a
specific ethnic group is being targeted and fighting back. Nevertheless,
he tries to remain apolitical; however, Leda is becoming more and more
political, as is Albert.
When Karel's father disappears, the zoo is taken over by political
forces, and Leda becomes more and more agitated, Karel is slowly being
pulled into taking a firm stand. When Albert rejects his student and
Kehr, a special assistant of the
civil guard, moves into Karel's house, the real tension and fight for
Karel's mind begins. Originally published in 1990, this is the Open Road Media digital re-release and is as pertinent today as it was then.
Setting this novel in an unnamed country works both for and against the
narrative. It does allow Shepard to take elements from many regimes and
combine them to make a picture of what growing up in a totalitarian
police state might look like to a teen. He truly captures man's
inhumanity to man. As I was reading, though, I kept trying to place the
story in a country, or a part of the world. It is sad that the narrative
can fit so many different regimes, but, for me, I kept wanting to know
the place, rather than a general unnamed country.
The novel does contain scenes of torture and destruction that might bother some readers.
Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy
of Open Road Media for review