“If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this: in love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are.”
This is how The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah starts – this is the first sentence of the novel and it sets the whole atmosphere of the book. The small framing chapters that are set in Oregon in 1995 serve as a starting point of the novel whereas the main narration takes place in Nazi-occupied France during the Second World War. The war not only serves as the historical backbone of the novel but also functions as the driving force behind the actions of the characters, especially the two female protagonists – the sisters Vianne and Isabelle.
The Nightingale covers some of the topics in which I am mostly interested at the moment when I choose a new read – it illustrates the moral and physical strength of women who strive to accomplish their dreams and survive in a new, often brutal, environment; on the other hand, it deals with the Second World War (a topic about which I have been constantly reading since my teenage years) and how it affected the lives of the (seemingly) ordinary French women and their families.
The new thing that really captivated me from the very first pages of the novel is that the book narrates the story of the home front. It does not focus mainly on the war front and the Holocaust (even though these topics are, undoubtedly, intertwined within the narration) but it gives the account of how the ordinary French women found their own ways to express their resistance to the Nazis – be it in rural Carriveau, Paris or in the midst of the Pyrenees Mountains bordering Spain. These women are forced to house Nazi generals and take care of them. They wish they could fight for their country and some of them even secretly do so. This was the thing that I almost had no clue about – the French women were a powerful factor in the French Resistance that fought secretly during the occupation with every means they had.
These women were the epitome of bravery and each of them contributed to the resistance the way they could, even with the smallest efforts. Vianne, the older sister, at the beginning of the novel is what we would call a rule-follower – she sticks to the rules, says that she will wait patiently for her husband to return from the front and at the meantime she will take care of her young daughter. And who can blame her for this decision? Every mother would do the same thing, I think. However, as the story unfolds she is forced to deal with situations she has never imagined before and her survival instinct becomes so strong that she even kills the Nazi general who is living with her and begins helping the French Resistance by hiding Jewish children.
On the other hand, the other sister, Isabelle, is a rebel. She has never obeyed to any rules and her desire to be the leader drives her to join the French Resistance. I love her character development because she starts out as a impetuous 18 year old, but in order to survive the war, she turns into someone tough and driven and so strong. It is her rebel spirit that makes her participate in what Hannah calls the Pyrenees Mountains escape route. Isabelle has been given the code name The Nightingale and she manages to save the lives of 118 allied airmen by smuggling them into Spain via a very difficult trek through the Pyrenees Mountains, where they are able to head home to the U.K. or the U.S.
“Men tell stories. Women get on with it. For us it was a shadow war. There were no parades for us when it was over, no medals or mentions in history books. We did what we had to during the war, and when it was over, we picked up the pieces and started our lives over.”
The only thing that bothers me a bit in The Nightingale is the presence of some historical inaccuracies and anachronisms. Being a history enthusiast, I except accuracy when I read a historical novel. Plausibility is sometimes sacrificed to some rather dull exaggerations – the insignificant small town in the middle of nowhere is packed with German soldiers and SS generals; bombings are a common thing every day as if the whole war is centered around the town; the Jewish characters who need to escape as soon as possible magically acquire false papers within paragraphs as if this was the most common thing. I attribute these inaccuracies to the fact that Hannah wanted to write an emotional account of what happened on the home front in Nazi-occupied France, rather than stick to the facts and give a historically-correct story. That is fair enough as the novel is classified as historical fiction and the fiction-element of the genre predisposes some elements that would be imaginary. However, my problem was the historical-element – you simply cannot use such a big war conflict as a background to your story. Stick to the facts and be historically accurate!
Overall, I’ve given the book a five-star rating because of the ending! It was just… wow! So unexpected, well-written, and genuinely moving.