Reviewed by Gail M. Murray
Once again Robson has fashioned a masterful novel overflowing in smooth liquid prose and memorable characters we feel we know. This superb storyteller builds her novel on a framework of history shedding light on a lesser-known part of WWII, the fate of Italy’s Jews. Her flawless and authoritative research reverberates with a personal flair.
While visiting her husband Claudio’s family Northwest of Venice, Zia Maria discloses that her grandparents hid Jews. “Hebrei”, his aunt said, “To nonno i ga sconti” which translates “Jews. Your grandfather hid them.” Giovanni and Emma Garda had been asked by their parish priest to shelter Jewish families in danger of arrest and deportation in their small farmhouse. Father Oddo Stocco (whom Father Bernardi is based on) the town’s parish priest from 1931 to 1948 was named Righteous Among the Nations in 2010 for his heroism in saving more than fifty Jews by securing hiding places among his parishioners. The seed was planted.
Twenty-three-year-old Nina, not only represents thousands of Italian Jews who were persecuted but a flesh and blood woman forced to flee her Venetian home. Her father entrusts his daughter to Niccolo Gerardi (Nico) who will hide her with his family in his small rural village of Mezzo Ciel – halfway to heaven. Nina is reassured by the gentleness of Nico’s manner.
Nina embarks on an arduous journey both physical and emotional – a two-day sixty-kilometre trek by foot, up into the mountains. Welcomed as his wife by Nico’s father and siblings except for Nico’s prickly older sister, Rosa, who resents Nina for taking her brother from the priesthood; Nina gradually adapts to laborious farm life. She’s plunged into a foreign world plucking chickens, scrubbing floors on her hands and knees, and harvesting hay. Nina takes joy in the children, especially energetic Carlo, the youngest, and her growing relationship with Nico. They work from sunup to sundown yet it is a good life, and Nico treats her with kindness and respect as their friendship blossoms into love. My favourite scene is where Nico proposes and they say their wedding vows. Nico's inclusion of the Song of Solomon part of the Jewish ceremony is tender and endearing. So amidst this bliss, I’m wondering where is the darkness of the title?
Then a local Nazi SD officer, Karl Swerger, enters the picture. Swerger, a brutal bully from Nico's seminary days, shows off his new power and position. With each visit, the peril increases. Even this remote village in the mountains is not safe from torment, as partisans are hanged in a public spectacle.
Swerger takes out his vendetta against Nico on Nina, who surrenders to save the family and their baby Lucia. Resilience and courage are needed if Nina is to survive this dark night. Will she outlast the horrors of Birkenau? Robson doesn’t shy away from the atrocities. Will this story end in hope? So harrowing were the fates of Nina and Nico whom I had become invested in, I had to skip ahead to the last chapter. As always, Robson includes a glossary, bibliography and extensive notes. Highly recommended.
Our Darkest Night is published by HarperCollins.