Friday, 17 April 2020

Emma's Review: In Darkness, Look for Stars by Clara Benson

Reviewed by Emma Crowley

Paris, 1941: Going against her mother’s orders, spirited Maggie devotes herself to the Resistance. Her life is a whirlwind of forged passports and secret midnight runs, helping Jews escape. Much to her high-society mother’s disproval, she has fallen in love with Emil, a Jewish Resistance fighter who is wanted by the Nazis.

The city is growing more dangerous by the day, with signs proclaiming ‘No Jews’ posted everywhere in the maze-like streets, and people dragged away in handcuffs. The forbidden lovers are forced to say goodbye – Emil going underground to escape capture.

Meanwhile, Maggie’s sister Cecilia is hundreds of miles away, where the realities of war are yet to hit the serenity of the South of France. Innocent and shy Cecilia is shocked to the core when Emil turns up, seeking refuge. Her sheltered life turned upside down, Cecilia is thrown into the world of the Resistance, all the while sending coded letters to her sister, who every day awaits news of her fiancĂ©.

But with the Nazis closing in on them, their lives soon hang in the balance. Both sisters must decide where their loyalties lie – and how far they are willing to go to save themselves, and one another.

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Many thanks to Bookouture via NetGalley for my copy of In Darkness Look for Stars and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.

In Darkness Look for Stars is an impressive read from an author new to me, Clara Benson. On further research it appears that Clara has previously written historical mysteries but this is one of the first books that she has written featuring a World War two setting. I was completely engaged with this book from the opening chapter until the very last page. You are instantly drawn into the story from the brief introduction which sets the scene for what is to come. Flight Lieutenant Alec McLeod, crashes into the French countryside when he is forced to bail from his plane. His mission is abandoned and as he lies injured he wonders will he be captured and sent to a prisoner of war camp?

But fate has other plans in store as Marguerite, or Maggie, rescues him and brings him to a safe house. She is working for the French resistance and is doing her bit in the overall fight to win the war and see the Germans defeated. As Maggie leaves him he contemplates whether he will see her again and be given the opportunity to say thank you for what this woman did for him? This was the perfect introduction to the story and I did think it would go on to feature Alec heavily. Instead the focus shifts to Maggie and her family and the story that unfolds is one of heartbreak, love, loss and sacrifice.

The book switches effortlessly back and forth between Maggie and her sister Cecilia's experiences during the war years and the late 1940's/1950's based on the family now living in England. The author slips effortlessly between the two time periods and as there is not a significant gap between the two timelines, events are fresh in peoples minds and the memories are having a lasting effect on those that remain. There is plenty of mystery and secrets throughout the book and one can only guess as to the true extent as to what actually happened to leave a family in limbo, deeply hurting and unable to move forward.

Harriet Conway arrives in Hertfordshire to start a new job as an assistant to Rose Brouillard, the mother of Maggie, Cecila and Sebastien. Another brother was killed during the war and their genius musician father collapsed and died whilst conducting a performance of a piece he had written. The shadow of their talented and famous father lingers heavily over the family as Rose clings to the notoriety of a piece which achieved fame and fortune for the family. But this is not a happy family set up which Harriet soon comes to learn and as she delves deeper into the recent past she begins to uncover some startling truths which have been kept under wraps for quite some time.

Harriet was the catalyst that attempted to bring unity to the family in small baby steps at first. Harriet herself has suffered trauma and is only now attempting to glue the pieces of herself back together. She hopes that by working for the family she can return to some sort of normality but little does she realise what awaits her at Chaffingham House as Rose clings to a past that can never be regained and Cecilia has cut herself off from the world and is drowning in despair at what has befallen her. Cecilia never expected her life to turn out the way it has and as for her young son Rex she wants nothing to do with him.

The chapters based at the family home were stifling and oppressive. There is a fearful, mysterious atmosphere lingering over the house almost Gothic like in its portrayal. There is inner despair and a feeling of being completely and utterly broken. The family continue as if things are normal but Harriet feels like she is tip-toeing around on eggshells afraid to say or do the wrong thing. Sebastien is also under immense pressure to fulfil his mothers wishes to perform his fathers most famous piece. But the reader can sense that he is volatile and being to crumble under the intense strain. Rex is like a toy that once brought great happiness but is now left broken and unnoticed. Harriet knows that things need to change but she is fearful that if a can of worms is opened it will be very difficult to return its contents if what spills forth is what people want to hear or act upon.

I loved the tension built up around this aspect of the storyline and my sense of intrigue just grew and grew. It was like everyone was sitting on a ticking time bomb and as the minutes counted down the urgency in uncovering the truth became ever more prevalent. When Alex, now a flying instructor, arrives at the house looking for Maggie, Harriet's interest is piqued even further but to discover just exactly what is going on, one must look to the past and to uncover just exactly what happened during the war years to leave a family in such limbo where all the reader feels is that misery abounds and there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel. All Harriet wanted was a nice, quiet job with people who wouldn't do anything to crack the delicate shell she had formed around her. But Rose has a biting cruel, manner about her and she seems eaten up with spite, grief and hardship and as does Sebastian but what led them to feeling like this?

During the war Cecilia is a music scholar sent to Nice from the family home in Paris to continue her studies. Her sister Maggie sends letters with secret messages and soon she sends some precious cargo, her beloved Emil. Emil is involved in the resistance as is Maggie and to keep him safe he must lay low in Nice. Up until this point Cecilia has had her head stuck in the sand truly unaware of the dangers of war and what is going on around her. She needs to come into the real world having kept her eyes shut for too long. She finally begins to understand that many people are putting their lives in danger to help others and that Emil and Maggie are part of this. Soon Cecilia is thrown into the world of the resistance and we are shown how those who enjoyed the good life in Nice used this as a cover for their secret operations all part of a wider circle of opposition to the Germans. It was great to see Cecilia waking up and becoming more conscious of what was going around her and in turn playing an active although dangerous role in the overall plot. But soon Cecilia's head is turned but when the heart comes calling she feels no other option but to give in to it. Here her loyalties are tested and what ensues really sets us up for several sub-plots to develop and all the time you are wondering how does this connect back to the Cecilia in 1949. What happens to somebody to make them change so drastically?

When Cecilia finds herself caught between a rock and a hard place and she is forced to return to Paris, the story really took off to another level. She knows she has done wrong and the shame eats away at her but as they are living in turbulent times sacrifices have to be made and personal feelings have to be pushed aside as there are greater forces at work. These forces/plans led to some terrific nail-biting scenes both in 1950 and 1943 and my heart was in my mouth at all times. The story was brilliantly paced in the latter half especially as I raced towards the end to uncover the mystery that permeated the entire story. All the layers were being methodically dissected and the little clues and hints that had been dropped throughout the story began to make sense. The actions and opinions of characters became clearer although I wouldn't have agreed with them all. Those characters I didn’t really like for the majority of the book my opinions of those people began to change and I realised that Clara Benson had really written a fantastic story with memorable characters who believed at all times that they were doing their best. But perhaps some of them were misguided in that belief?

In Darkness Look For Stars is an excellent read and one that I enjoyed very much. The author is skilled at giving strong voices to all of her characters but whether you want to hear what they have to stay or indeed believe everything they say or stand for, well that is another matter. War, music, betrayal, forgiveness, understanding, love, grief and loyalties all play major roles in this book that I would definitely recommend you pick up and read especially if you enjoy historical fiction set in and around World War Two.

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