Novel Approach: ‘Our Darkest Night’ characters fall flat in new World War II novel

“Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die life is a broken-winged bird, that cannot fly.” —Langston Hughes

The atrocities and the resilience of those who survived the devastating events of World War II is a popular topic within historical fiction novels. Our latest read tells the story of a young Italian woman and how the war reshaped her life.

‘Our Darkest Night’ by Jennifer Robson

Bestselling author Jennifer Robson offers readers a well-researched account of life in Italy during World War II. In her novel Robson traces the events of how Jewish Italians had their rights stripped away before being rounded up and sent to concentration camps.

When it grows increasingly unsafe to be Jewish in Venice, Nina’s father concocts a plan to have his only child sent away to pose as the wife of a farmer and ride out the rest of the war in the countryside.

While Nina doesn’t want to leave her parents, she obliges and leaves with Nico, the kind stranger who has volunteered to protect her.

As the book progresses Nina and Nico develop a gentle friendship before falling in love, all while the war rages around them. Nina struggles to adapt to her new country life and worries when Nico leaves her with his family to pursue his increasingly secretive missions to help others flee the fascists. Robson layers in details of the war’s progression in Italy.

While the story itself is rather intriguing, Robson’s characters feel flat because she puts so much of her effort into accurately depicting the history and life of an Italian farmer that she doesn’t get around to providing her cast of characters with more depth.

The reader only knows what Nina knows, but while we read about her suffering, Robson fails to take it to the next step and evoke an emotional response from the reader.

Nina’s life is torn apart time and again throughout the novel, and while she manages to cling to hope her narrative misses the emotional mark.

“Our Darkest Night” is an interesting tale, but it had the potential to be far more intriguing if Robson had provided more than a surface-level exploration of her character’s feelings.

From the book jacket…

It is the autumn of 1943, and life is becoming increasingly perilous for Italian Jews like the Mazin family. With Nazi Germany now occupying most of her beloved homeland, and the threat of imprisonment and deportation growing ever more certain, Antonina Mazin has but one hope to survive — to leave Venice and her beloved parents and hide in the countryside with a man she has just met.

Nico Gerardi was studying for the priesthood until circumstances forced him to leave the seminary to run his family’s farm. A moral and just man, he could not stand by when the fascists and Nazis began taking innocent lives.

Rather than risk a perilous escape across the mountains, Nina will pose as his new bride. And to keep her safe and protect secrets of his own, Nico and Nina must convince prying eyes they are happily married and in love.

But farm life is not easy for a cultured city girl who dreams of becoming a doctor like her father, and Nico’s provincial neighbors are wary of this soft and educated woman they do not know.

Even worse, their distrust is shared by a local Nazi official with a vendetta against Nico. The more he learns of Nina, the more his suspicions grow — and with them his determination to exact revenge.

If you enjoy…

For those looking for more historical fiction narratives, consider reading “The Prisoner’s Wife” by Maggie Brookes. The book was inspired by the true story of a World War II POW whose wife was captured with him and had to disguise herself as a man to survive in the concentration camps.