Once I started Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale I couldn’t put it down. It was one of those books you chance upon once in a while. The book surprised me. I had no idea who Kristin Hannah was, although she has apparently written over a dozen books. A friend picked it up at the bookstore, I started reading it, and at once decided to download it.
The book is about two sisters and their father in France during World War II. Those horrible years in France--how the French survived, the resistance some of them displayed and the role of collaborators--has always fascinated me, as have the inescapable moral issues.
Vianne, the oldest of the two sisters, lives with her husband, Antoine, and daughter in a village south of Paris. She is quiet, reserved, hard-working. Isabelle is impetuous, short tempered, a rebel. When their shell-shocked father returns from World War 1, everything changes. He is no longer the kind, serious scholar. Now he is angry, prone to drink, and harsh.
After his wife dies, he kicks his two daughters out of their apartment and sends them away to a Catholic school. Isabelle escapes from one school after another. Antoine is drafted into the Army and in time is captured, sent to a camp. Vianne struggles to get by in their country home.
Her clothing was as worn and ragged as that of most Parisians, and the clatter of wooden soles rang out. No one had leather anymore. She bypassed long queues of housewives and hollow-faced children standing outside of boulangeries and boucheries. Rations had been cut again and again and again….
Food is scarce, there is no heat, a German solider comes to occupy their home, then another after Vianne accidentally kills the first one. The second soldier is mean, lusts for her. Meanwhile, Isabelle joins the Resistance and becomes a hero after escorting downed English and American pilots across the Pyrenees numerous times.
On this cool October morning, her life would change. From the morning she boarded this train…she would no longer be the girl in the bookshop…From now on she was Juliette Gervaise, code name the Nightingale.
Later Vianne gains the cooperation of a Catholic nun to save children in the Sister’s school. The War goes on, the hardships increase, finally the Americans arrive, the Nazis are driven back, Antoine escapes from the camp, Isabelle is captured, somehow manages to survive and both Antoine and Isabelle return to their home when the War is over.
Those are the major occurrences in an otherwise rich and beautifully written novel. Hannah has that rare story telling gift.
In reading The Nightingale, I came to realize that fictional depictions of World War II are far more revealing than the non-fiction books I’ve read. The experiences, dangers, thoughts and emotions of the people seem to me much truer to what the experience must have been like.
I am reminded of a statement George Eliot wrote, “Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow man beyond the bounds of our personal lot.”