Friday, April 29, 2016


NIGHT VISION by Ella West (Allen & Unwin, 2014)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Viola was born with a genetic condition that makes sunlight deadly. In the dark of night, when most teenagers are tucked up in bed, Viola has the run of her parents' farm and the surrounding forest. She is used to seeing hidden things through her night-vision goggles, but one night she sees something that could get her into a whole lot of trouble...

Like the rare Kiwi or even rarer Kakapo (native New Zealand birds), young Viola is a truly unique creature living a nocturnal life exploring the New Zealand bush. Born with unusual genetic condition Xeroderma Pigmentosum, XP for short, Viola is at risk from anything that emits ultra-violet light, including the sun. Burning, blistering, alterations to her DNA, cancer.

In danger from daylight, Viola is one of 'the moon children', and while her parents sleep she explores the family sheep farm and surrounding forest by night, sharing the natural world with the moreporks, possums, and other creatures prowling the darkness.

One night, she witnesses a vicious and violent crime, and sees the perpetrator bury a sack of money. With her parents in financial difficulties and in danger of losing their farm, Viola decides to take the money to help her family, drip-feeding it to them over time. While the Police are looking in the wrong direction, Viola finds herself in the criminal's crosshairs after a newspaper interview about her and her condition tips off the local drug dealer as to just who might have taken his money. 

I think Night Vision would be a superb mystery thriller for adolescent readers (middle graders for those in the United States) but can also be enjoyed by older teenagers and adults. I certainly liked it a lot, even though it's quite a bit 'simpler' than the adult crime novels I usually read. The tale is smoothly written and West does a great job weaving in lots of interesting characters, themes, and setting in among the page-turning 'how will Viola outwit a dangerous criminal?' plotline.

Viola is the heart of Night Vision, a unique adolescent who's had to face many challenges and restrictions in her young life and has no chance to live the life of a 'normal kid', no matter how much she might want to. Her first person narration draws us into her world, her perspective, her life. Viola's a remarkable 14-year-old who still feels very real, mature for her age but still her age and not too adult or 'author in a teen body' (a flaw in some young adult books). She's engaging and interesting.

I also enjoyed the way West brought the New Zealand rural setting to life, life on the farm and in the forest. The nocturnal perspective on the local bush, the dual serenity and danger of nature, was well evoked and created an atmospheric backdrop to the tale. Night Vision has an eerie elegance to it, absorbing more than helter-skelter thrilling in tone, full of interesting characters and information that is adroitly parsed out in an engaging manner that doesn't disrupt the way the storyline unfolds.

From medical conditions to music, nature to questions of natural justice, Night Vision tickled my mind as I turned the pages, just as Viola tickled my heart. A very good read from a talented storyteller.


Craig Sisterson is a New Zealander who writes for newspapers and magazines in several countries. He has interviewed 150 crime and thriller writers, discussed the genre at literary festivals and on national radio, and is the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Award. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

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