Our Darkest Night: A Novel of Italy and the Second World War
In October 1942 in Venice, 23-year-old Antonina (Nina) tends to her invalid mother. Later, Nina observes a Catholic priest visiting her Jewish physician father who, although banned by the Fascists from practicing, still helps the poor. Afterward, her father informs Nina about the worsening situation for Jews in Venice. While her father cannot leave, on account of her sick mother, the priest arranges to have Nina flee Venice with a young man, Nico, a former seminary student. Since going over the mountains into Switzerland would be too arduous, Nina would be sequestered at Nico’s farm in the country, posing as his wife. Nina reluctantly agrees. She is well received by Nico’s family and the villagers. Despite being a cultured Venetian, Nina proves herself by learning farming practices and toils alongside other workers. Soon she and Nico are drawn closer together. However, the local Nazi officer, a brute who bears a grudge against Nico, suspects Nina to be Jewish. He starts investigating her, and his findings could lead to dire consequences.
This novel is fascinating, for Jennifer Robson has based it on real-life incidents from her husband’s family history. The setting of WWII Italy, covering the lives of Italian Jews, is uncommon as well. It’s interesting to learn that these families suffered similarly harsh treatment and pain under the Nazis to Jews in other parts of Europe. They were also hidden in attics and elsewhere by sympathetic locals. The novel’s first half matches the slow pace of Nina and Nico’s journey from Venice to the farm. The prose and evocative descriptions make up for the lack of real action, but the speed and conflicts pick up in the latter half. Robson uses numerous coincidences to sew the storylines together. While some seem extraordinary, it’s not clear if they’re based on real events. Highly recommended.