Our Darkest Night by Jennifer Robson, published 2021
This novel begins in Venice in 1942, centering around a Jewish family. The elderly father is a renown medical doctor, now unable to practice openly due to restrictions put onto Jews by the Fascist government. The partially paralyzed mother is confined to living in a care home after suffering a stroke. Nina, the daughter, a young lady, daily visits and cares for her mother and in the evening she is taught medicine by her father.
As the Nazis begin to increase their presence in Italy, things begin to become more and more dire for the Mazin family, and the father, who will not leave his invalid wife, schemes with his friend, a Catholic priest, to get Nina away from Venice, out to an isolated rural farm where she might escape the wrath of the Nazis. The priest knows of a trustworthy young man, Nico, who will take her to his family’s farm to live. Nico had been training to be a priest, but had discontinued the training after the death of two of his brothers left his family’s farm short-handed.
To make the scheme work, Nina and Nico must pretend they are husband and wife and when they show up at the farm, his family is very surprised at his sudden “marriage”. Of course the reader by this point, knows what will eventually happen when these two characters are thrust together, so it is no surprise to the reader that all of the pretending and having to act married, eventually does lead to love between the two, despite the vast differences in their backgrounds and religions. Nina must pretend to be Catholic and must keep up the pretenses with everyone, even Nico’s family.
Nina slowly adapts to the hardships of living on a small farm with Nico’s father, Rosa his sister who runs the household, and his several younger brothers and sisters. Life is good on the farm until the Nazi presence appears in the tiny village. Their presence is particularly ominous because Nico is part of the network that smuggles Jews and others fleeing the Nazis, out of Italy.
Zwerger, an Austrian, the commanding officer of the local Nazi troops, is of course a vane and vile creature, who had once attended the same seminary as Nico, until he was kicked out for bullying. He calls on Nico at the farm to “renew their acquaintance” although he is really there to show off his new status as a Nazi officer.
He becomes very suspicious of Nico, who was training as a priest and has suddenly married. He periodically visits the farm and becomes even more suspicious at Nico’s many absences. He interrogates Nina several times, showing more and more evil intent, even shooting the family dog at one point. Luckily Nina has enough medical skills to save it.
Eventually Zwerger secures evidence of Nico’s activities and Nico is almost immediately shot by firing squad, but saved by the intervention of the local priest, but he is whisked away by the Nazi’s to have a so-called “trial” in a city. Nina is hidden by the family, who by this time know her true identity, but when Zwerger threatens to kill family members until she is found, she gives herself up.
She is taken into custody at the same prison where Nico was taken and sees a hooded corpse wearing Nico’s clothes still hanging on the gallows and during her questioning, Zwerger confirms her suspicions that Nico has been killed. She then is loaded into a cattle car, transported, to join others of her religion, in the living hell of the Nazi death camps.
I will stop at that point in the plot, even though there is much more to come in the novel, even a satisfying ending.
I have read all but one of the Canadian author, Jennifer Robson’s historical novels and have enjoyed every one of them. I was happy to see this one on the shelf as a choice for this month’s Book Club.
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