Author: Robert Ryan
Publication Year: 2005
Genre: Historical Fiction/WW2
In 1944, a Liberator bomber pilot never returns from a mission to Domodossola in Northern Italy. The aircraft and its pilot are seemingly lost for ever.
In 1964, his daughter, Lindy Carr, resolves to find out what happened to her father on that terrible night. She employs the help of motorcycle TT racer Jack Kirby, a man who has his own inner demons to combat. He was a Mosquito fighter pilot during the War and experienced at first hand the astonishing courage of the Italian partisans in the face of Nazi brutality. Jack is keen to find one of the partisans, a woman with a past as dark as the secrets she still holds close to her heart.
My two cents: Robert Ryan is officially one of my favourite authors. If I was impressed with 'The Last Sunrise', this one totally makes him one of my favourites. The book opens with a letter from a pilot posted in Italy to his soon-to-be one-year-old daughter (which was based on an actual letter), written right before he went MIA. Twenty years later, desperate to find out what really happened to her father, Lindy Carr hired Jack Kirby and his one aircraft airline. Soon, Jack Kirby was transported back to the years he spent with the Italian partisans and the role he might have had in the missing of Lindy's father and his Liberator.
I've read plenty of books with Italy as the settings but nothing captures me like this one. The WW2, as fought in Italy and the involvement of partisans in the war are not something I'm familiar with and in the beginning, I had quite a hard time following the events described. I guess a little bit of before hand knowledge would make for a smoother read.
What I like the most about this book is that the story works at every level, be it the story of Jack's involvement with the partisans during the war, Lindy's search of her father or Jack's post-war life. The building of the pace is neither too slow nor too fast which is just right for my reading. The blurb suggests that this centred around the missing Liberator and Lindy's search. It's true in a way but the missing Liberator itself is the key to many other unfolding events. The way Ryan intertwined the past (1944) and the present (1964) to build a complete picture is amazing, to say the least. I was totally hooked and I brought this book with me everywhere. The twist was unexpected, especially the one with Lindy and Jack's old love, Francesca.
Jack Kirby is complex. A man with his own demons to combat and the scars that war leave in him, I can't help but feel sorry for him and I keep wishing for things to turn better for him. But, the book is not all dark despite the theme and the story. It's written in a lighthearted way and the dialogs brought smiles to my face on many occasions. My only complain is that this story is quite short (only 300+ pages). The author ended it beautifully, in the wee hours of the dawn. The title might suggest at the darkest hour of the day, that is after midnight before the dawn. After all, the darkest hour is always just before the dawn and did Jack Kirby manage to go through it.
One of Ryan's many strengths is to create believable settings no matter what the year is and this could only be achieved by extensive research. Though this one leans more towards fiction, the atmosphere portrayed stays close to how one might imagine war and its aftermath are like. If there is one thing that I learned, it is that wars leave scars in everyone and in war, nothing is too personal as people do many things out of desperation and the instinct to survive prevails for most of the times. All in all, an amazing read.
My verdict: 4.5/5