When the e-book was published in December, I was so delighted to welcome author Tessa Harris as my guest to share the story behind her latest novel, Beneath a Starless Sky – not only the fascinating historical background, but also the story of how the book finally saw the light of day. You can read that post again here – but today is paperback publication day, and I’m delighted to share my review.
Smoke filled the air. Lilli Sternberg’s quickening heart sounded an alarm as she rounded the street corner. Lifting her gaze to the rooftops, a roaring blaze of thick flames engulfed the side of the building and joined the stars to fill the black sky. Her father’s shop was no more.
Lilli Sternberg longs to be a ballet dancer. But outside the sanctuary of the theatre, her beloved city is in chaos and Munich is no longer a place for dreams.
The Nazi party are gaining power and the threats to those who deviate from the party line are increasing. Jewish families are being targeted and their businesses raided, even her father’s shop was torched because of their faith.
When Lilli meets Captain Marco Zeiller during a chance encounter, her heart soars. He is the perfect gentleman and her love for him feels like a bright hope under a bleak sky.
But battle lines are being drawn, and Marco has been spotted by the Reich as an officer with great potential. A relationship with Lilli would compromise them both.
Will Lilli be able to escape the threats facing her family, and how much is she willing to risk for the man she loves?
An absolutely gripping and emotional historical fiction novel about love, courage and betrayal, for fans of My Name is Eva and The Woman of War.
What a wonderful story, and so superbly told – I was entirely swept away by this one from its dramatic 1940s prologue to its perfect and emotional ending, a masterful blend of fiction and fact, overflowing with drama and intrigue.
It opens in the 1930s – Lilli is Jewish, living with her family in a Munich tenement, a talented young ballet dancer dancing through the pain and dreaming of a different life, in the leading role in a production of Giselle, excited by the possibility that she might be spotted by an American talent scout and offered the opportunity to appear in the movies she sees on the silver screen. Marco Zeiller, a young German soldier, is enchanted by her performance – despite the obvious obstacles to their finding happiness together, their convincing and troubled love story threads its way through a story that becomes far more than the romance I might have at first expected.
As the fascist threat inexorably grows, we follow Lilli’s life and all its twists and turns. Leaving her family behind, she achieves the success she hoped for, moving in circles she could never have imagined being part of – while at home in Germany, the Nazis steadily gain dominance, her concerns about her family increase, and she hopes to use her position of privilege to secure their escape and safety.
I have an almost irresistible urge to tell you the whole story – every encounter, every well known historical figure that plays a part, every dramatic twist and turn of Lilli’s personal story – but it’s something that everyone really should discover for themselves. But I enjoyed so very much the familiar figures and the insights into their lives – the Hollywood glitterati, the highest Nazi echelons, the royalty, and the rich and famous.
Much of the historical background is very familiar, but the book allows you to have a far more intimate and personal view – with a depth of research and detail that brings both the individual characters and their world vividly to life. Although I’ve called it “background”, it’s very much more than that – Lilli’s own story of bravery and survival is entirely meshed and blended with the lives of characters we know so well but are rarely so privileged to be able to share.
The writing is excellent, the emotional content perfectly handled, the sheer pace of the story unrelenting and entirely gripping – I’m a little averse to calling any book a page-turner, but this one totally consumed me throughout, impossible to put down, the perfect escape from life and its distractions. It had the quality of a big screen production, the whole canvas quite wonderfully drawn, the familiar historical facts seen from within in a way I thoroughly enjoyed – but entwined with Lilli’s personal story of heartbreak, betrayal, love, determination, courage and resilience quite perfectly and entirely convincingly.
This book was everything I wanted it to be, but so much more than that – I loved every moment, and recommend it very highly.
About the author
Tessa Harris read History at Oxford University and has been a journalist, writing for several national newspapers and magazines for more than thirty years. She is the author of nine published historical novels. Her debut, The Anatomist’s Apprentice, won the Romantic Times First Best Mystery Award 2012 in the US. She lectures in creative writing at Hawkwood College, Stroud and is married with two children. She lives in the Cotswolds.