Book Review – The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

The Nightingale is a welcome anomaly for the work of a modern author. Kristin Hannah crafted an outstanding well-researched story that’s written exceptionally well. I enjoyed her creative usage of language along with the vivid characterization. In addition the author paced it brilliantly. Not once did its 440 page lose my interest.

Nazi occupied France served as the setting for most of the story. It evolved around the lives of two sisters. Vianne Mauriac lived as a conformist. She cooperated as best she could with the German occupiers. Protecting the lives of her children motivated her throughout the book; that and the hope of seeing her husband again. (A French soldier, he’d been captured by the Germans when they overran the country.) Love of family served as her main driving force.

Her sister Isabelle served as an excellent contrast. Always a rebel, the war gave her an outlet for her anti-authoritarian impulses. In spite of the danger, she opted to join the French underground. Under the code name Nightingale, she assisted dozens of allied airmen in their escapes to freedom: so they could “drop more bombs” on the enemy. The nature this journey made the accomplishment that much more remarkable. She personally led them from Paris through the Pyrenees Mountains to the British consulate in Spain.

I found the book very moving without drifting into melodrama. That’s an achievement for any author. It’s even more remarkable because I’d classify the story as a plot driven thriller. The depictions of hunger and privation at the hands of the occupiers gave me a sense of what life would’ve been like for the victims of Nazi oppression. As did the deportation scenes. The chaos where soldiers and collaborators rounded up multitudes of Jews combined with the detailed portrayals of the cramped conditions on the trains were disturbingly well written. I couldn’t believe Ms. Hannah an American born fifteen years following the war’s conclusion. The scenes read as though styled by someone who lived through the occupation. The author clearly performed her historical research.

As I mentioned I found The Nightingale extraordinarily well written. It contained perhaps the best opening line ever printed.

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.

As one can surmise from that passage the book included myriad fantastic uses of language. “The stairs unfold from the ceiling like a gentleman extending his hand.” (Page 2) “She wanted to bottle how safe she felt at this moment, so she could drink of it later when loneliness and fear left her parched.” (Page 16) “She watched the two men have an entire conversation without speaking a word.” (Page 99) And the most memorable: “Inside, the house echoed with the voice of a man who wasn’t there.” (Page 111)

The author utilized the following exceptional alliterative phrases, as well: “smelled of sausage and sweat and smoke” (Page 35),burdened beneath boxes”, and “served supper in silence.” (Page 86)

What all that impressed me, the author did a phenomenal job keeping me guessing. The structure accentuated this sense of mystery. In addition to the narrative of the occupation, several sections took place in Oregon in 1995. In those portions an old woman known as “Mom” reflected on the events of the occupation. I couldn’t tell if “Mom” was Vianne, Isabelle or someone else. I won’t disclose the character’s identity. I’ll allow readers to experience the same curiosity I did when they read the book.

A line from Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis comes to mind. “I only wish it had been worse. Only then could I find the proper words to praise it.” The same could be said of The Nightingale.

Book Review – The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

It seemed fitting that the protagonist of The Girl on the Train would be a train wreck. Rachel Watson couldn’t hold a job, drank chronically and harassed her ex-husband’s new family. And then there were her bad qualities. As if all this didn’t keep Rachel occupied she found herself drawn into an intriguing murder mystery. While no Miss Marple, she became the key investigator in determining Megan Hipwell’s killer.

Paula Hawkins crafted Rachel like a character out of an Alfred Hitchcock film. After getting fired because of her drinking, every day she still rode the same train she took to work. She did so in order to make her landlord think she still had a job. At one of the stops she could see into a young couple’s yard. She found herself drawn to the pair; even to the point of giving them imaginary names. (I mentioned Rachel had ‘issues’, correct?) They reminded her of the early days of her defunct marriage. “They’re what I lost, they’re everything I want to be,” Rachel observed. (Loc 177)

Then Rachel read an article in the paper that the woman, Megan Hipwell, had disappeared. The couple happened to live a few doors down from where Rachel’s husband Tom resided with his new wife and their infant daughter. To add to the intrigue Megan went missing on a night Rachel had one of her drunken confrontations with her ex-husband on the same street! Unfortunately, she blacked out following the encounter. Even more unfortunately for the missing woman, Megan turned up dead.

Ms. Hawkins did an exceptional job choosing such an unreliable narrator to serve as a sleuth. As I read I wondered if Rachel would end up incarcerated for her continued harassment of Tom and his family. I also pondered what other drunken hijinks she’d get into next. I liked how she struggled with her demons. As the story progressed she steadily learned to control them enough to focus on finding Megan’s assailant. I didn’t expect to encounter a protagonist this complex in a murder mystery. I applaud the author’s proficiency with the character’s development.

This will sound like a strange comparison, but this book reminded me a bit of Kenzaburo Oe’s novel A Personal Matter.  I loved the first three quarters of it. The protagonist and suspense really engaged me. Then the book degenerated into cliché. The end section failed to maintain the high level of writing. The events leading to Rachel’s recollection of the events during her blackout seemed contrived. Out of respect for those who haven’t read the book yet, I won’t reveal the killer’s identity. I will comment that the culprit possessed a narcissistic personality with sociopathic tendencies. The murderer believed himself or herself smarter than everyone else. Doesn’t that describe any villain from any murder mystery ever written? The climactic life-or-death fight at the end bored me. While it contained a lot of action I thought it weak and predictable.

The originality of the story’s protagonist made The Girl on the Train a worthwhile read. I have to admit there were times when I really didn’t care about the killer’s identity. I was more curious to discover what Rachel would do next. The ending made the story much too cliché for my taste. It made me want to take up Rachel’s favorite pastime. For me the real mystery was why I didn’t stop reading 75% of the way through.

Book Review – Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Ms. Flynn hooked me with the first line and kept my attention riveted until the very end. I write without reservation that the author crafted the most suspenseful novel I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. I found myself clasping my e-reader tighter and tighter as I transitioned from screen to screen. Gone Girl impressed me on every conceivable level.

While it’s difficult to select one just one aspect the author excelled at, I found the character development Ms. Flynn’s strongest skill. The narrative alternated between Nick Dunne and his missing wife Amy; the latter in the form of diary entries. I found neither one of these characters likeable, but that led me to enjoy the book even more. Stories that feature a saintly protagonist battling a demoniacal antagonist bore me. Both of the main characters in Gone Girl had deep psychological flaws, which made the story much more engaging. Presenting the story in their own words made me upset when bad things happened to them. And these characters deserved their misfortunes.

I found Flynn’s deft use of foreshadowing without peer. With that acknowledgement, I don’t want to give away spoilers. The mystery of Amy’s disappearance captivated me so much that I wouldn’t want to deny other readers the same experience. What I can do is suggest that those planning on reading Gone Girl keep the following passages in mind as they progress through the narrative. To be fair, I picked-up on them when I perused the book.

Amy wrote in her diary, “Give me a man with a little fight in him, a man who calls me on my bullshit. (But who also kind of likes my bullshit.)” (Page 29)

After meeting with police after his wife’s disappearance, Nick wrote, “It was my fifth lie to the police. I was just starting.” (Page 37)

During an interview with a television host, Nick mentioned that he wanted his wife back so he could treat her “how she deserves.” In an inner monologue he added, “Oh, I’d definitely like to treat her how she deserves.” (Page 333)

With such complexity around the clues to Amy’s disappearance, I thought the author did a great job staying on-topic. That’s not easy to do with two unreliable narrators. Amy, who disappeared on her fifth wedding anniversary, left a series of cryptic clues to her disappearance that Nick and the police unraveled. Many of them had multiple explanations and led to different interpretations by the characters viewing them. Due to Ms. Flynn’s lucid style, I could follow them without any trouble.

And for the benefit of those who’ve already perused Gone Girl, I’ll address the 900 pound gorilla in the room: the controversial ending. Admittedly, when I first read it, I felt disappointed. I thought such a gripping story deserved a climactic ending that would correspond to the tension and anxiety in the narrative. The more I reflected on it, though, I had to acknowledge that the author made the proper artistic call with the conclusion.

Once again, I don’t want to give away spoilers. As a generalization, I will comment that based on Nick’s character and Amy’s personality, the conclusion perfectly suited their relationship. The author made it perfectly consistent with their interaction throughout the story. While I can understand why readers would not like the way the novel ended, the author wrapped it up properly. She also brilliantly laid the background for a sequel should she choose to write one. (I’m hoping she does.)

Gillian Flynn did an exceptional job crafting Gone Girl. I wanted to learn more about the characters in spite of my not liking them. I wanted to find out what happened next in the story, but felt nervous about finding out. It takes a gifted author to do all this while crafting a mystery this complex. I liked the writer much more than I liked her characters.