Friday, 22 May 2020

Emma's Review: Her Darkest Hour by Sharon Maas

Reviewed by Emma Crowley
‘You and me – we’re sisters, not enemies. We’ve got a real enemy at our door and we need to focus on that – together, united. I don’t want to be fighting you as well.’
In the small French town of Colmar, swastikas hang from lampposts, tanks are lined up outside the town hall, and twenty-one-year-old Marie-Claire is in love. She will do anything for her childhood friend Jacques, including spying on her German boss, Dietrich Kurtz. Anything to make Jacques see her in a new light, as something more than just a silly little girl.

But when Jacques rejects her, everything changes. Mortified and stung, Marie-Claire feels the need for revenge. She turns her back on those she loves and is catapulted into a new life.

Her little sister Victoire is aghast at her sister’s traitorous behaviour, not least because Marie-Claire is endangering Victoire’s own life-threatening mission, hiding Jewish refugees in their mother’s wine cellar. And when Marie-Claire marries Kurtz, Victoire knows her relationship with her sister has been poisoned for ever.

But when Victoire learns someone she loves is in terrible danger, her only choice is to trust the sister who betrayed her. Kurtz, Marie-Claire’s cruel and heartless husband, has key information and Victoire must persuade Marie-Claire to obtain it, even if it means risking Marie-Claire’s life. As secrets come to light and close bonds are broken, will the sisters be able to heal old wounds?

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Many thanks to Bookouture via NetGalley for my copy of Her Darkest Hour to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.

Her Darkest Hour by Sharon Maas takes us back to Alsace and the town of Colmar and the surrounding areas which first featured in The Soldier's Girl. In a way I felt this was a prequel of sorts to said book but of course it can be read as a standalone and for those who have already read The Soldier's Girl I think it will really enhance the overall story as lots of little connections are made and we get a deeper insight into familiar characters that we have already met. This time around there is more of a focus on the characters who produce wine at the Chateaux Gauthier and I found myself interpreting familiar characters and plots in a new and exciting way. Initially I did question whether this story should have come first but on reflection I think it was perfect to write the books in the order in which they are written as it allowed for a deeper exploration of characters who perhaps may not have gotten the limelight they deserved in the previous book.

Sharon Maas states in her end notes and acknowledgements that this was never intended to be an account of the war more so it was to show how the war affected a family unit. So some people may miss specific details of the war but the last quarter more than makes up for this as things start to come to a head. This book is very character driven and you will sway back and forth in your opinions of characters, in particular for me this was the case with Marie Claire, one of the daughters of the household. She is very divisive and time and time again my opinion of her changed depending on which stance she was adapting and for what reasons. Some of her actions leave rather a lot to be desired.

Christmas Day 1933 was the first time that Marie Claire realised she was deeply in love with Jacques, son of Maxene, the winemaker for her mother Margaux. But for Jacques the feelings are not mutual, their relationship is more like that of siblings. It's this rejection that will eat away at Marie Claire and will form the reasoning for many of her selfish actions throughout the book. The book moves forward at several junctures during the war years but not so that it becomes confusing for the reader. It needed to hop forward in order to cover the period of the war and how it deeply and devastatingly affected the family. I did think coming towards the end that there were several years to go and many explanations needed to be given and I wondered how this would come about?

Of course it did but perhaps this need to fit everything in made the last quarter or so feel quite rushed considering the time already given to building up and developing the story. That would be my only minor issue with this book as overall it was a very good read and I felt I got to know the characters very well and it gave me a real broad picture of how the war impacted on the family in question not to mention all the sacrifices they made and heartache they endured. If you have the luxury of reading both of the books together I think you will get an even deeper sense of what the author was trying to achieve by writing these books.

In 1940 the Germans march into the Alsace region and claim it for themselves. For many years this territory has swayed back and forth between France and Germany but now the Germans have once again arrived and are determined to stamp their mark on the area. People's names must be changed to German names, street names and signs are altered, the German flag flies at every corner, houses and food are requisitioned and the army sets up their headquarters in the town hall where Marie Claire works. She is one of the ones, thanks to her ability to speak German, who is kept on as a secretary to Commander Dietrich Kurtz. It is this betrayal by admitting she knows their language that will forever haunt her and it changes the course of her character throughout the story.

Marie Claire was always the one who was different from her family. Her siblings Victoire, Leon and Lucien seem like alien people to her and she has no interest in the vineyard and wine business run by her mother. Her father lives in Paris and she dreams of leaving Colmar and travelling to live there with them. Marie Claire is one for the high life, she loves make-up, fashion magazines and all the top quality clothes her father sends to her. She has not yet reached the age where she can leave for the bright lights of a new city and this grieves her. Her family are aghast that she will work for the Germans and comply with their every command but really she has no choice. But in another way I felt she was doing it to get back at her family for not understanding her and making her feel like an outsider. But this is all in her head. Jacques is now working for the Resistance in France and he plays a pivotal role in wanting to bring the war to an end but will Marie Claire play ball or is she too far entrenched into the ways of the Germans?

As a character Marie Claire was very hard to like. She seemed to have her head in the clouds and considered only herself at all times. She never took into account that all her various family members were doing their bit to see the back of the Germans. Rather she was selfish and was only satisfying her own needs. She creates a feeling of unease and foreboding through her actions that permeates the book. The situations she finds herself in are all of her own making and could have been avoided if she had more compassion and a greater self awareness of the world around her. Things become very sinister for her and her story takes a dangerous route but when push comes to shove will she do her bit for the right cause and will her family members help her out when she needs the most in the most desperate of times as she finds herself becoming deeper embroiled in the work of the Commander.

I just thought Marie Claire was so self-centred and only conscious of her own wants and needs and really the war years were not the time to fuel ones own ambitions rather they should have put aside to fight for her country in any way she could be it big or small. It really annoyed me that she was neutral and never resisted what was going on. Yes at times she swayed back and forth but if I was looking at the overall picture my opinion of her as a character as whole would not be a positive one. It's a true sign of family love and commitment that although her family disagreed with what she went on to do that deep down there was still that love and affiliation lurking there for Marie Claire from her family members. I did wish that she would get over the fact that Jacques refused her and not hold it to heart so much. She needed to move on but the question remains whether she did this in the right manner or not?

Juliette, who is the sister of Jacques, does play an important role in this book as she starts to work for the Resistance. Although I would have loved some more chapters from her viewpoint even though I understood the reasons for this not being possible. More so from a sibling viewpoint the focus turned to Victoire, Marie Claire's sister, who is aged 15 when war first breaks out. She longs to do her bit for her country and despite being so young she is much wiser and self aware than her sister ever could be. Over the course of the book we see Victoire turn into a remarkable young woman, with a sensible head on her shoulders. She is disappointed that Jacques won't let her join his resistance group. She would love nothing more than to be traversing the mountains helping Jews flee and seek refuge.

But she heeds Jacques wise words and Victoire and her mother have an important role to play that although she feels she is not doing her bit really she is an important cog in the overall picture. Victoire was the total opposite to her sister and it was interesting to see how two completely people could come from the same family that stood for the same values yet they could go in completely different directions. A direction which would put plenty of people in danger. I loved Victoire as a character and even more so when her most crucial scene comes in the last quarter of the book. She pushed everything aside, her feelings and opinions and made the ultimate sacrifice. After all family does stand for a lot.

I really enjoyed Her Darkest Hour I know enjoyed is the wrong word given the subject matter but still it is a very good book in the historical fiction genre based around World War Two. Sharon Maas is really finding her feet writing about this period and I hope there will be more books like this to come in the future.

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