The Darkest Heart by Dan Smith

2 Mins read
The Darkest Heart 200

Set in a little-known part of Brazil, this is a novel which explores the very thin line between darkness and light, life and death, good and evil in this country of contrasts. Yet in the process, it delves into the very same contrasts within the human heart – and how easy it is to slip from good intentions to very bad deeds.

Zico has come to this forlorn town in the inland region of Brazil to escape from the favelas of Rio and the memory of his sister’s terrible rape and murder. His specialty is the quick, emotionless kill, but lately he has begun to wonder if a simple life with his girlfriend Daniella could be within his grasp. The slimy drug dealer and crime lord Costa asks him to do just one more job. He is even willing to promise money and a strip of land if the assassination is well executed, though Zico is not sure if he can trust the man at his word. This time the target is an American nun, an activist for indigenous rights, so Zico is having second thoughts. Still, the proposition is far too attractive to turn down, plus Costa has other methods for ensuring obedience.

The American nun needs to be transported to Mina dos Santos further down the river, so Zico will have the opportunity to intercept her boat and eliminate her. He has often made the journey down the river with his friend Raul, an old hand at navigating those treacherous waters and good at not asking too many questions about the cargo he is paid to transport. However, this time he will have to lie to both Raul and Daniella about the purpose of the trip, as they embark together upon Raul’s battered boat. Things get even trickier when Leonardo – a far more desperate hired gun – joins them on the boat to protect the shipment he has just paid for.

This noirish thriller then narrates the adventures of this bunch of misfits as they head together ‘into the blackness of the Devil’s heart’. This is in many respects an old-fashioned tale of adventure, survival and Boys’ Own-type of exploration. Any allusions to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness are entirely intentional, as the author explores just where the line is drawn between civilisation and savagery. It’s also a journey of discovery for Zico himself. He is not entirely sure what he is capable of anymore, either good or bad. Are his girlfriend Daniella and the nun Sister Dolores right in believing that there is some humanity left in him and that he will do the right thing?

There is plenty of action, violence and excitement in this story, but there is a more leisurely pace too to this novel, much like the meandering of the river they are navigating. At times this meandering does slow the narrative, and there’s much repetition over Zico’s back story and moral dilemma. Though there’s plenty of incident at the beginning of the book, the real story of the river journey takes a while to get started. The writing style makes the book enjoyable, a mix of noir utilitarianism against a backdrop of poetic licence. Above all this is the atmospheric portrayal of a part of the world that time, the law and Brazil’s recent economic strides have forgotten all about. Dan Smith clearly knows the location well and is able to transport us there effortlessly.

A book to keep Brazil fresh in your mind even after the World Cup is over.

You can read a feature about Dan Smith’s inspiration for this story here.


CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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