Desert Isle Keeper
Our Darkest Night
Our Darkest Night – a tale of how one young Jewish woman survived and thrived in WWII Italy – had me riveted from the first page to the last.
Antonia Mazin’s father had been a famous doctor but by Autumn of 1943 the racial laws had stripped him of that title. Now the two of them live in a ghetto, trepidatious about what the future holds, and anxious about her mother who suffered a stroke, is severely disabled and lives in a full time care facility nearby. Their hope is that their erstwhile Nazi allies – now invaders – will not enact in Italy the horrors they have heard from Poland, France and Germany.
Family friend Father Bernardi thinks that is unlikely and urges the duo to flee to Switzerland. Antonia’s father, initially, is reluctant to do so. He believes the tide of the war is turning against the Germans and is unwilling to leave his helpless wife behind. Two months later he hears disturbing news and realizes that imprisonment and deportation are just around the corner. There is no hope of getting his wife to safety and he refuses to leave her but he insists on Antonia accepting the priest’s aid.
Nico Gerardi had been an unusually bright and gifted child and so was sent from his small, impoverished farming village to study for the priesthood, the most honorable vocation available to him. Then his elder brother died and he was needed to help maintain the family farm. His father and sister speak of his returning to his education when the war is over, but that was a path chosen for him and he is increasingly certain it is not one he wishes to pursue. A man of integrity and courage, he has been helping Jewish families to flee the Nazi occupation. When Father Bernardi approaches him for help with Antonia, he gladly complies. However, circumstances prevent them from sending her on a perilous trek through the mountains to safety, and instead, she finds herself posing as Nina, Nico’s new bride, and settling into the hardscrabble life of his small family farm.
It is not an easy adjustment. Antonia is a soft city woman, well-educated but with nary a callus on her smooth hands. She’s determined to make this work however, and within weeks she has built the muscles and learned the skills necessary to make herself an asset to those who have taken her in. Antonia finds herself fast falling in love with the family; the kind, gentle father, the gruff eldest sister with the heart of gold, and the three young children. And Nico, especially Nico, whose kindness, innate goodness, intelligence, and compassion make for a heady combination that any woman would be hard put to resist. (I didn’t even try. He had me by the heartstrings within a few pages of my ‘meeting’ him.) He seems just as fascinated with her and they quickly find themselves developing deep feelings for each other.
There is only one fly in the ointment – but rather than a mosquito, it is a giant killer wasp of a problem. A local Nazi officer was at school with Nico and is still resentful of the fact that Nico had outshone him in every regard. He has a lot of questions about why a man who would so clearly have made an excellent priest has married and resigned himself to a life as a humble farmer. The more time he spends looking for answers to those questions, the more ‘Nina’ and Nico fear he will stumble on their secrets and bring ruin upon them all.
I loved everything about this book. The pacing was perfect – I was on the edge of my seat the whole time, wondering if Antonia/Nina would be discovered, worried that Nico’s continued work with smuggling Jewish families to safety would get him caught and killed, terrified that the evil Nazi officer would do something to the family as an outlet for his jealousy. And yet into that anxiety the author weaves threads of joy, love and beauty that give the narrative a wonderful balance.
The prose is lovely. Ms. Robson gives us such a luminous picture of life on a small Italian family farm that it felt like I was watching a movie of the events because I could picture everything so clearly. Even though the life described was hard she imbues it with the love the people who lived it feel for it and that made spending time in the environment so wonderfully enticing. I could see why Nina and Nico, both of whom could aspire to a much wealthier existence, had a deep affection for where they were.
The characters are marvelous. As I said, Nico is a to-die-for hero. He is brave and kind and good and just darn near perfect. Nina is the same, and watching them fall in love was as sweet and romantic as I could have wished.
The plotting here is excellent. The author moves us briskly along our story path, giving us a rich, detailed look at occupied Italy and how the denizens came to hate their former allies. She takes our hero and heroine on their perilous route through this war torn landscape, holding out the hope of their finding a peaceful future but always reminding us that there was no guarantee for such a thing in their situation. There are some truly gut-wrenching, horrific moments in the story but the ending makes it all worthwhile.
For those wondering, Nina stays true to her faith and her roots. The idea that she do anything beyond posing as a Christian before the Germans is never entertained. Also worth noting – there is an attempted rape scene at one point, and numerous scenes of wartime violence throughout.
Our Darkest Night was a glorious start to my 2021 reading. I would recommend it to anyone looking for a great, emotional read.