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January 5, 2021

Our Darkest Night, by Jennifer Robson

In her first four novels, Jennifer Robson proven herself as a master of popular historical fiction, her books about strong independent women’s self-discovery against a backdrop of World Wars 1 and 2, weaving fascinating historical detail (Robson holds a doctorate in British economic and social history from Saint Antony’s College, University of Oxford) with scintillating narrative. Her books are huge bestsellers, and many writers, having achieved that kind of success, might determine that they’d found their formula and should probably stick to it, but not Robson, whose smash hit fifth novel The Gown did something a little different, set in 1947 as Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip, bringing to light stories of craftspeople who’d worked the embroidery on the wedding dress and posing vital questions about the devaluing of craft and art in general that tends to be created and appreciated by women.

And now, two years on, Robson—who: full disclosure, is a friend of mine!—has continued to demand more of herself as a writer and also of her readers, releasing Our Darkest Night, which I read on New Year’s Day and think is her finest novel yet. Set in World War Two Italy as Nina, a secular Jew, leaves her home in Venice to hide in the countryside, disguised as a the wife of Nico, a Catholic farmer, as Italy’s fascist government continues to escalate deadly laws targeting the country’s Jewish population—her father has already lost his medical practice, she is not permitted to study, local Jewish associations are being called on supply officials with lists of people they’re connected with.

And so Nina agrees to go, desperately missing home and her family, and Robson does a wonderful job of creating a beautiful dynamic between them of respect and friendship…that has the potential to blossom into something more. The goodness of both these characters and the relationship between them creating a necessary balance to the backdrop of their story, the cruel and brutal reality of racism, persecution, and genocide. Robson doing nothing to blur the sharp edges of the truth of these matters, their violence and devastation. This is not an easy read, but to make it so would be to dishonour the stories of the real people who lived through and were victims of the Holocaust. And how does a writer whose novels feature plucky heroines and smoochy covers manage to do justice to the weight of the history she is telling? But Robson does, deftly, gorgeously.

Nina isn’t plucky—she’s a survivor. And I was trying to think of what the distinction might be exactly, which perhaps is that she comes to the story without naivete and with such a profound sense of who she is and where she comes from—there is a gravitas to her boldness that makes her absolutely unpluckable. She’s a remarkable fictional creation, and Our Darkest Night is a masterpiece.

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