by Kristin Hannah
Genre: fiction, historical, war, romance, World War II
Challenges: Goodreads Choice Awards reading challenge 2016, Popsugar 2016, Bralnica 2016
In the quiet village of Carriveau, Vianne Mauriac says goodbye to her husband, Antoine, as he heads for the Front. She doesn’t believe that the Nazis will invade France…but invade they do, in droves of marching soldiers, in caravans of trucks and tanks, in planes that fill the skies and drop bombs upon the innocent. When France is overrun, Vianne is forced to take an enemy into her house, and suddenly her every move is watched; her life and her child’s life is at constant risk. Without food or money or hope, as danger escalates around her, she must make one terrible choice after another.
Vianne’s sister, Isabelle, is a rebellious eighteen-year-old girl, searching for purpose with all the reckless passion of youth. While thousands of Parisians march into the unknown terrors of war, she meets the compelling and mysterious Gäetan, a partisan who believes the French can fight the Nazis from within France, and she falls in love as only the young can…completely. When he betrays her, Isabelle races headlong into danger and joins the Resistance, never looking back or giving a thought to the real–and deadly–consequences.
I loved this book despite a few small issues at the very start and now it is firmly on my 2016 favourites list. It is so easy to see why my fellow readers loved it and voted it a Goodreads Choice Award winner in 2015. It is a truly wonderful story.
Once you get over the first few chapters where we are introduced to our main characters you’re hooked for the rest of the novel. The pace of the tale really picks up once Nazis occupy France and we are treated to difficult moral questions and choices. In some ways the rebellious Isabelle has it easy – she’s made up her mind to oppose everything Nazis stand for and she’s got little to lose. She’s not close to her family so she is not preoccupied with worry about them and the dwindling provisions; she’s very young and therefore unaware of her own limitations and the levels of danger her rebellious nature exposes her to, making it easy to be antagonistic to the occupiers and their silent supporters. Yet at the same time she’s very lucid and clear-sighted about the direction this new war is going. It is she who hides a lot of stuff at the start of the war, she who keeps her family away from closer association with their Nazi lodger – Captain Beck. It is her silent and not so silent reproof that makes her sister Vianne take a stance against Nazis.
Vianne is older and of different temperament than her rebellious sister. Her preferred method of survival is to become invisible, to blend in and not make waves. It is a logical step for a mother who is scared to death about her POW husband and the harsh realities of war. She has seen what war does to men, she has seen what war has done to her own childhood and she is determined to shield her own daughter from the lesson she had learned far too soon. Isabelle can’t see that there is a time and a place for one to make a stand, but Vianne knows how to pick her battles. She can’t afford to act suspiciously with a Nazi in her house. That doesn’t mean she has no mind of her own or that she is incapable of rebellion. No, Vianne is perfectly able to act in an instant when circumstances call for it; she’s capable of enormous personal sacrifices, persevering through all kinds of trials and tribulations with nerves of steel. This is a woman who can lie to a Nazi sadist and smuggle Jewish children under his nose – and feel guilty she hasn’t done more to help, hasn’t found a way to trust her sister Isabelle sooner.
I love the character development in this novel because it so gradual and therefore very realistic. Vianne changes her naive outlook about the war to harsh and very pragmatic realism. The slide into grey areas of morality of what is right is a shock to her system and outlook on the world and prompts a total transformation of what it means to be a mother, a sister, a patriot, a survivor, and a rebel. Not everyone needs to wield a gun to fight back. Sometimes it is the little things; a kind word, a silent and unobtrusive helping hand, the shared sorrow that keeps a town and community going. While Isabelle takes the tougher road of underground resistance, it is hard to argue Vianne is in a better position. Isabelle’s transformation is also more subtle to the reader, but she does grow up considerably. She turns form a slightly obnoxious and annoying character into one of my favourites. That is why you need to read beyond the first chapter – it is so worth it.
I was reading Catch 22 at the same time (World War II books just sucked me in for some odd reason) but I found the different focus and writing style of The Nightingale refreshing. This novel shows us what happens to people left behind in a war in contrast to what soldiers think about war. The Nightingale shows us the brutal effect of warfare on civilians, especially children. Starvation, fear, psychological warfare and propaganda, unstable family environment, and the general helplessness of parent figures cause significant damage. Some adapt quickly, some are traumatised for the rest of their lives. The book also points out that children see through bullshit with astounding clarity and you can’t hoodwink or protect them when they reach a certain age – I’d say some hit this point around five while others start to question everything a little later. Vianne’s daughter Sophie is one of those who grew up in a war and is marked by it. Their Jewish neighbour Rachel’s children are the other group affected by the war.
The romance is really low-key and it is right so. I think that the reality of war took precedence thereby making the few romantic interludes all the more poignant and affecting. You feel with the characters and you are glad they have something to hold on to in their darkest times. The novel shows us the various types of love and how each helps people and society to pull through. It is when there is no love and compassion that evil can triumph. Societies need to band together to address an external or even internal threat in case of occupation.
So – highly recommended. You’ll be captivated by the story and if you’re familiar with World War II you’ll find small shout-outs to historical events that had far-reaching effects.