After the Lights Go Out by Lili Wilkinson focuses on the life of seventeen-year-old Pru Palmer, who lives with her dad, Rick, and twin sisters, Grace and Blythe, in a rural Australian town called Jubilee. The girls are estranged from their mother and are being homeschooled by their father. Oh, and the family also happen to be doomsday preppers who own a secret bunker that will allow them to survive if the power cuts out and the world turns to chaos… And wouldn’t you know it, that’s exactly what happens.
What drew me in immediately to the story is that you’re filled with a sense of unease that never truly goes away throughout the whole book.
Each chapter is a tightly wound jack-in-the-box and you just keep turning the crank, waiting for something to pop out and give you heart palpitations. As someone who used to run away from the TV as a child whenever Crime Stoppers came on (yeah I don’t know why either), my tolerance for nerve-jangling things is criminally (heh) low. But I was fully embracing the tension in this book, especially when it came to things like Pru keeping secrets from the rest of the town, the continued whiffs of the dad not being entirely stable and any time a snake was mentioned because they’re just terrifying, OK?
The novel also makes you think about your own sense of morals and ethics and how you’d behave in a similar situation. Everybody hopes they’d be the kind of person that keeps a cool head in a crisis, but what Pru, her family and the rest of the town face is something extraordinary. The Palmer girls have had a motto instilled in them by their father, “Family first”, but it becomes increasingly hard to stick to when the sick and starving people in town could really use the medicine and food stored in the bunker. I’d like to believe I’d be that person who kept her moral compass on track and helped out a friend in need (like Chidi from The Good Place, except without all the stomachaches), but I’ve also gone a little “all work and no play” before a la Jack Torrance in The Shining when our internet was down for a mere twenty-four hours so… yeah.
It was also really interesting to learn a lot of new information, and not just about bunkers and survivalists and bug out bags (Brendan Fraser did not teach me these things in Blast From the Past). There are so many skills and pearls of wisdom that Pru has stored in her mind – she’s brilliant. Need to navigate your way around via the sun or the stars? Easy. Set broken bones? Done. Make sanitary pads out of household items because your dad forgot to stock them in the bunker? Stayfree, who? Lili herself mentioned all of the research needed on the Allen & Unwin blog ‘Things Made From Letters‘:
“The book required a massive amount of research – about geology and flora and fauna. What all the parts of a zinc mine are called. How to build a radio from things lying around the house, without any electricity. How to purify water. Build a fire. Use an epipen. Help someone having a seizure. Deliver a baby. Find a Shakespeare quote relevant to any situation. Explain the effects of solar flares on radio waves.”
As well as all of this, the characters are intriguing and diverse, there’s a bit of romance in amongst the havoc and you’ll become super protective of a beautiful dog called Panda.
After the Lights Go Out is a compelling story that will stay with you for a long time after you’ve read it.