Life & Culture

Review: Our Darkest Night

The author's meticulous research makes for heart-wrenched reading, writes Madeleine Kingsley


Cityscape image of historical city of Bolzano, Trentino, Italy during twilight blue hour.

Our Darkest Night
By Jennifer Robson
Headline Review, £9.99
Reviewed by Madeleine Kingsley

Years ago, our young family camped out on a wooded hillside outside Bolzano in northern Italy — fresh air, pizza, sweet holiday expectations. It felt like a blow to read in Jennifer Robson’s latest novel, Our Darkest Night, that wartime Bolzano held a detention camp for Italian Jews (including her heroine) en route to Birkenau. Friezes now commemorate its perimeter, just as Stolpersteine mark the last known homes of Venetian Jews deported and murdered.

The horrors of occupied middle Europe are familiar from fiction, but less so perhaps the plight of Jews from La Serinissima — Venice — and the hill villages where they were hidden by righteous gentiles such as Robson’s own grandparents-in-law, Giovanni and Emma Guarda.

Family history, uncovered only in 2018 via her son’s Holocaust school project, was the deeply personal inspiration behind Robson’s bittersweet burgeoning love story between a young Jewish woman, Nina, and Nico, former priest and now secret partisan.

It is 1942 and the Gestapo are demanding the names of every Jew in the Venice ghetto. Nina’s doctor father is forewarned, but will not flee and leave his beloved wife, long-term sick and confined to a nursing home. He petitions his friend, the local priest, to help Nina escape the city.

She is entrusted to Nico’s care, and taken to wait out the war at his family farm in Mezzo Ciel. The pair are total strangers yet pose as newlyweds to make her presence plausible.

Robson’s novel is essentially a tale of two halves. It speaks first of suffering, secrecy and stoicism, then of brutality unimaginable in this innocent, bucolic context. It speaks of courage that’s redemptive no matter how it ends.

Even before the jackboot’s coming, life in the campagna is a challenge of callouses and cover-up Christianity for soft, city girl Nina. Robson balances Nina’s external struggle — harvesting, haying and winning over Nico’s large and close family against her internal terror of betrayal and the deepening of desire between her and Nico, despite their religious divide.

It is a truth often stated that narrating nasty people is infinitely easier than fleshing out the good, but this novelist delivers romance without sugary excess. It’s no spoiler to say that the pair are torn apart — this much was inevitable — as the Gestapo grip tightens and the lovers give up what is most precious to save lives and souls. Local Nazi officer Zwerger heightens their torment in a personal vendetta.

We are witness to a harrowing Nazi massacre of young men, based on the real atrocity of Bassano del Grappa, as testified in a private family memoir shared with Robson. Her meticulous research makes for heart-wrenched reading of Nina’s capture and her inhuman camp experience foreshadowing only one, almost certain, end. But even the darkest night gives way to dawn and readers haunted by so many Holocaust tragedies can feel warmed by Robson’s sunrise denouement.

Madeleine Kingsley is a senior JC reviewer

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