On a Night of a Thousand Stars takes place in 1976 and 1998. In 1976, Santiago Lerea is a law student from a prosperous family in Argentina. In 1998, he and his wife Lila live very well in the United States with a house in the Hamptons and an apartment in Manhattan. Thye have one daughter, Paloma, who lives in Brooklyn and is in college. What drew me to read this book, was that these years were my law school and young adult years, including when I was raising my child and reading about the Argentine disappeared. It was an in your face painful period to read about and emotionally has never left me.
By way of background, in the late 1970s through the early 1980s, a military junta in Argentina fought a war of kidnapping, torturing, raping and disappearing as many as 30,0000 of its its own citizens: some were vocal activists or revolutionaries, some the families and friends of these more active people, and some that could not be categorized by more than their art or their volunteer work or being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Many were students but certainly not all. Whole families were taken. Priests shot. No parent or grandparent or spouse or partner could discover their loved one’s fate during that time and much remains unknown. Some of this was in the news in my own post-high school years in college and law school. Now it is in the news again as DNA is being used forensically to identify the bodies that have been found over the years. And always, my heart ached over these stories.
Clark writes a story that both captures this period and its aftermath. It is both engaging and compelling and tells the story, but is mostly not hard to read. This is quite a feat! In 1998, Santiago, Lila and Paloma go to Argentina for a visit and for his investiture as the ambassador to the United Nations for Argentina.Paloma is casually dating an Argentine polo player so she plans to spend part of her time in Buenos Aires while her parents are at the family ranch/farm with her grandfather. She has only casual knowledge of this travesty but an old friend of her father’s shows up at a huge gathering in the Hamptons and she hints to Paloma that her father somehow saved or spared some lives during the 1970s period of the junta’s activities. Her father shows extreme displeasure with Grace, who leaves the party. As Paloma runs to say goodbye to Grace, Grace recommends an author to her.
On a Night of a Thousand Stars becomes a detective story and a coming of age story as Paloma seeks to learn more about her father and the period he is so quiet about. I found the writing spare but compelling and while I can’t claim an emotional connection to Paloma what I found was a deep interest in her story, her parents’ stories, their friends’ stories and the stories of the children and grandchildren of the , still seeking answers and today in 2022 they are till seeking answers. As she learns about her father, his friends, one of his girlfriends and more, she joins up with Franco, whose mother disappeared and whose father was killed on the spot. He has experience and connections with finding some answers as part of an activist group calling attention the the fact that over ten years after the overthrow of the junta, relatives of the disappeared still knew almost nothing. And one document at a time, one witness at a time, one photo at a time, Paloma learns a complicated story that makes this a wonderful and compelling read.