Reviewed in Australia on 20 August 2020
Not your usual WW2 historical fiction, IN DARKNESS, LOOK FOR STARS by Clara Benson is a tale of love, loss, hope, danger, resistance, betrayal, fear and jealousy. Spanning a decade from 1941 to 1950, the story is poignant, heartwarming and heartbreaking all at once. Once I started this captivating read, I could not put it down...and wouldn't have if real life didn't have a habit of getting in the way.
Paris, 1941: Defying her high society mother's expectations and ambitions, Maggie Brouillard dedicates her life to the French Resistance helping Jews escape capture and certain death. In the process she has met and fallen in love with Emil, a Jewish Resistance fighter, who is so far removed from what her mother considers a suitable match. But Maggie doesn't care a jot. She loves Emil and would do anything for him, as well as helping as many people as she can, working beside the man she loves. But the Germans are gaining ground and getting closer and Maggie knows she must move Emil somewhere safer.
Nice, 1941: Cecilia Brouillard lives a quiet uncomplicated life in the south of France, which has so far escaped the horrors of war, studying and composing music at the Academie. But that is about to be disrupted with the arrival of Emil, at the behest of her sister Maggie to shelter him and keep him safe from the Nazis. However, his arrival plunges Cecilia's life into complete disarray and ultimately danger as he introduces her to the world of the Resistance and freedom fighters. But trusting her sister with Emil's safety would cost Maggie dearly...when Cecilia and Emil fall desperately in love and unable to live without the other. Cecilia lives in fear and shame of Maggie discovering their secret but finds she cannot give Emil up. Then the police raid one of their meetings and they are arrested. Cecilia is released soon after but Emil is sent to a Jewish camp in Poland.
Soon after her release Cecilia discovers she is pregnant and quits the Academie and returns to Paris to her family. But if she thought her mother would welcome her with open arms and take care of her, she was sadly mistaken. Rose was livid to discover Cecilia's condition and immediately sought to rectify it...by any means necessary! As soon as Cecilia discovered her mother's deception, she moved in with her older sister Maggie, continuing her involvement with the Resistance alongside her, with Maggie was still oblivious to her sister's betrayal. Leaving Rose to focus all her energies on young Sebastien, a music protege at 11, and throwing soirees for German officers - an arrangement that was mutually beneficial for both parties. And the promise that Sebastien will outshine his sister Cecilia and rise to the ranks she so far has failed to achieve.
But soon the future becomes frightening and uncertain for all involved, as Maggie and Cecilia must decide where their loyalties lie and how far they would go to protect themselves and each other.
Hertfershire, 1949: Arriving at the neglected yet grand home of Chaffington House, Harriet Conway has come to take her place as Rose Brouillard's secretary. Home to the Brouillard family since escaping Paris after the war, Chaffington's extravagance has all but disappeared with faded memories to match its decor and tragedy in the air. Rose is aloof, abrupt and extremely self-assured. Her purpose in life is to ensure Sebastien rises to the musical heights to which he aspires following in his father's footsteps and to preserve her late husband, Jean-Jacque Brouillard's, memory with scrapbooks of newspaper clippings and photos spanning the decades of his career right up to his untimely death. The fact that she has one surviving daughter and a grandson is of no consequence real to her.
The years, it appears, have not been kind to Cecilia. She is now confined to a wheelchair due to an accident anyone refuses to discuss, but for Sebastien's vague snide comments. She lives in an extended part of the house in her own apartment with everything she needs and yet she is utterly bereft with a sadness that consumes her that she refuses to leave the house. Even her 9 year old son Rex cannot inspire any happiness, and the boy is consistently disappointed that his mother hardly acknowledges him.
When a man knocks at the door one day searching for Maggie, Rose slams the door shut on him claiming there is no one there by that name, Harriet begins to suspect something is amiss. She soon learns that Maggie is the eldest sister of Cecilia and Sebastian but why won't no one speak her name? What could she have possibly done to be wiped from the family's memories? And what has happened to Cecilia to inspire such desolation?
Chaffingham is clearly shrouded in secrecy with the family so haunted by a past too shocking to speak of. But when Harriet stumbles across a letter, she uncovers a secret that could destroy the family even further. What is she to do? Ignore it and pretend she never uncovered its contents? Or expose the secret and rewrite history?
What a captivating read this book was! Although a little slow to start, it soon picked up pace as become privy to the Brouillard family's tragedies and secrets. The unexpected death of the patriarch. The extravagant expectations of their mother Rose. The instability of young son Sebastien and his failure to meet her demands. Cecilia's disgrace. Maggie's heartbreak. Rose's collaboration with the Germans. Maggie and Cecilia's resistance activities. The betrayal of siblings. The dysfunctionality of one family.
IN DARKNESS, LOOK FOR STARS is a beautifully told yet heartbreaking tale told in dual timelines - during the war and post-war - as the story unfolds between the past and present. It is easy to feel compassion for some family members and utter disdain for others as you are encapsulated within their stories. There is an element of mystery that will keep you turning the pages until the secrets are revealed leading to the shocking final act that will leave you breathless.
I do have one critique regarding the title - I cannot see how it fits the story. But that aside, it is an outstanding story that is so beautifully told.
I thoroughly enjoyed IN DARKNESS, LOOK FOR STARS and have no hesitation in recommending it to fans of historical fiction, particularly WW2, although it is not your typical wartime fiction.