Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale had been on my list for months, particularly when it claimed a spot on several Best Books of 2015 lists, so when it popped up in my Christmas presents from my mom, I knew it had to be one of the first books I read in 2016. And so it was.
The Nightingale tells the stories of two French sisters, Vianne and Isabelle, navigating the perils of World War II. Vianne says goodbye to her husband as he leaves for the front, not long before the German army takes over her little village and requisitions her home. Vianne strives to do everything right to keep her daughter, her best friend (a Jew), and her best friend’s children safe, all while under the ever-watchful eye of the German soldiers. Isabelle, 10 years younger than Vianne and a survivor the initial mass exodus from Paris in the face of German occupation, impetuously runs back to Paris and their emotionally distant father. In the process, she ends up involved with a French resistance group with growing risk to her own life. Over the course of the novel, the sisters struggle with their personal relationship, ideals, and choices made in the midst of war.
I am always looking for good books, novels or otherwise, that illuminate a lesser-known part of World War II, and The Nightingale does just that. The massive flight from Paris where German planes attacked French citizens as they tried to escape before the city was shut down was not something I really knew much, if anything, about, nor were the lives of every day French citizens in German-occupied towns and villages in the north of France (though one of my favorite books of last year, All the Light We Cannot See, did touch on that experience to a point). Hannah presents these major historical elements beautifully through the well-spun stories of individuals, and her structure of telling the story as a memory triggered by an invitation really emphasized both the personal and historical aspects of her plot.
For me, Vianne was the much more interesting and compelling sister. Isabelle was rather one-note throughout her hero’s journey. She was either stubborn, impetuous, and pissed off that no one listened or paid attention to her or stubborn, impetuous, and (almost self-righteously) weary with her self-appointed task. Isabelle’s moral way was clear, and so, though her physical journey was much greater, her personal journey seemed much smaller and more shallow. Vianne, on the other hand, rarely left her house but encountered a much more treacherous path, where black and white suddenly become grey and the ethics and morality of survival mean drastically different things to different people. Vianne’s emotional battles waged with herself are some of the more complex and most interesting parts of the novel, and, though I am not completely sure this was intended, Vianne is most certainly the novel’s emotional core. Though I was drawn in by much of Isabelle’s story, I found her tiresome, whereas I was so much more engaged by Vianne’s quiet struggle.
However, I myself struggled with one crucial plot point involving Vianne. I will try not to say too much, as it happens toward the end of the novel, but Vianne finds herself in a horrifying situation that informs the rest of the novel. Unfortunately, it felt rushed and forced, as if Hannah had decided early on that this would happen and suddenly found herself near the end of the novel, having to shoehorn this thing in. She essentially glosses over it in a way that robs it of its emotional and psychological import, and the focus she gives Vianne after seems misplaced and inconsistent. It actually feels a bit dismissive of the experience and therefore a bit disrespectful to those people who actually suffered through similar events during that and every other war since. I wish that, rather than making it feel like an unnecessary afterthought, Hannah had either taken it out or created the space needed for such an event and its aftermath to be handled honestly, sensitively, and appropriately for both its fictional characters and their real-life counterparts.
All that being said, Hannah has written a compelling account (and quick read) of some very particular experiences during World War II. For me, the novel did not have the emotional impact of say The Book Thief or All the Light We Cannot See, but it is an engaging, well-written, and thoroughly-realized story that highlights the intensely personal nature of human experience and memory and is certainly worth a good read.