The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah (2015)


What would you do if your country went to war, and almost the moment your men marched away the enemy marched in? Would you fight and resist, make trouble and risk arrest? Or, in order to stay safe, would you remain quiet, follow rules, and accommodate your conquerors?

This is the dichotomy at the heart of The Nightingale, which follows the lives of two sisters Isabelle and Vianne, who confront the World War II occupation of their beloved France with different ideas of what is best. Both sisters witness the cruelty and indignity their fellow French citizens must endure — the lack of food, the looting of their family homes, the billeting of soldiers, the curfews — Vianne with stoic distance and inward focus on her own struggles and Isabelle’s with increasing rage of her lack of ability to help them.

As the story unfolds, each sister must live with the consequences of her choices, for good and bad. For Vianne, this means she must respectfully welcome a German soldier into her home even if doing so means her neighbor’s grow suspicious of her loyalty to France. Vianne accepts his presence, knowing that it means more firewood on cold nights, more food for her growing daughter. Soon a relationship grows between Vianne and the soldier and she risks further ridicule to ask him for favors — letters to be smuggled out to her husband, train passes for her sister — even though it makes her feel horrible to have more than the others suffering in her town. Slowly, as the war years lengthen Vianne must question her own policy of strict rule-following in order to save the Jewish families in her town.

Meanwhile, Isabelle chooses to defy the German’s whenever possible. Starting with small illegalities (attending meetings with known communists, handing out anti-German literature), Isabelle grows bolder the longer the war lasts and the worse the German’s crack down on the French. Soon Isabelle has moved to Paris and begun risking her life to help Free France movement. For her this brings great pride, but also great loneliness and constant fear for herself, for her family (whose lives would also be at risk if she is caught,) and for those she seeks to help leave France to support the Allies.

Both sisters survive the long years of the war but neither without deep physical and psychological scars.

I realize that reading this novel so soon after finishing Anthony Doerr’s masterpiece, All the Light we Cannot See, (reviewed here means that perhaps I am asking a great deal from Kristin Hannah, namely that she bring the story of WW2 to life with as much passion and depth as Doerr. The book does a lovely job of telling the stories of these two women, but at times the writing seems a bit too detached and unemotional for such a dramatic topic. Furthermore, Hannah seems to tell the story with uneven levels of attention to detail — at times she goes too in depth for a scene that reveals itself to be unimportant, while other times she breezes through a scene that is pivotal. Overall, though it is an enjoyable book and one that is worth a read, I cannot help but feel that in comparison to All the Light is feels slightly flat.


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