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.