Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: March 12, 2015

In love we find out who we want to be. In war we find out who we are. FRANCE, 1939 In the quiet village of Carriveau, Vianne Mauriac says goodbye to her husband, Antoine, as he heads for the Front. She doesn’t believe that the Nazis will invade France...but invade they do, in droves of marching soldiers, in caravans of trucks and tanks, in planes that fill the skies and drop bombs upon the innocent. When France is overrun, Vianne is forced to take an enemy into her house, and suddenly her every move is watched; her life and her child’s life is at constant risk. Without food or money or hope, as danger escalates around her, she must make one terrible choice after another. Vianne’s sister, Isabelle, is a rebellious eighteen-year-old girl, searching for purpose with all the reckless passion of youth. While thousands of Parisians march into the unknown terrors of war, she meets the compelling and mysterious Gäetan, a partisan who believes the French can fight the Nazis from within France, and she falls in love as only the young can...completely. When he betrays her, Isabelle races headlong into danger and joins the Resistance, never looking back or giving a thought to the real--and deadly--consequences. With courage, grace and powerful insight, bestselling author Kristin Hannah takes her talented pen to the epic panorama of WWII and illuminates an intimate part of history seldom seen: the women’s war. The Nightingale tells the stories of two sisters, separated by years and experience, by ideals, passion and circumstance, each embarking on her own dangerous path toward survival, love, and freedom in German-occupied, war-torn France--a heartbreakingly beautiful novel that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit and the durability of women. It is a novel for everyone, a novel for a lifetime.

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I’d not read Kristin Hannah before picking up The Nightingale and in all honestly, I’d given the jacket description only a cursory glance before accepting the title for review. I knew a few of my friends enjoyed the book, but I’d made a point of avoiding their assessment of the piece. I’m rambling, but I guess what I’m trying to say is that I seriously underestimated this book. 

Hannah’s illustration of occupied France is nothing short of brilliant. Supply shortages, displaced refugees, the plight of the Jewish people, the changing political landscape, the resistance movement, and the daily struggle to hang onto hope in the shadow of the German swastika are all represented in Vianne and Isabelle’s story, but the way Hannah manipulates the material and uses it to shape the sisters and their relationship is what makes this novel truly special. 

Of the two, I suppose I felt closer to Vianne, but Isabelle is an equally compelling character and I feel the differences between the two only made the story more moving. The emotional depth Hannah gifted these women, the strength and fortitude she showed in such varied contexts is both eloquent and heartbreaking. Theirs is a powerful story of passion, family, courage, conviction and faith, it is the kind of drama that haunts your imagination and touches something deep in your soul.

Historically speaking I felt the novel impeccably well-researched, but the Ravensbrück scenes stand out in my memory. Most authors focus on Auschwitz-Birkenau, Theresienstadt and Dachau and maybe it’s because I began reading Ravensbruck: Life and Death in Hitler's Concentration Camp for Women by Sarah Helm halfway through The Nightingale, but I found Hannah’s unapologetic portrayal of the brutality in the oft overlooked labor camp intense and fascinating.

It sounds odd considering he is a German officer, but I thought Wolfgang Beck an inspired addition to the cast, especially alongside to Von Richter. That said, neither holds a candle to Julien Rossignol. He enjoys a supporting role, but his part brought tears to my eyes.

Looking back on this piece sends chills down my spine and while I don’t usually buy into editorial reviews, I have to admit author Sara Gruen hit the nail on the head when she said The Nightingale is “a beautifully written and richly evocative examination of life, love, and the ravages of war, and the different ways people react to unthinkable situations (not to mention the terrible and mounting toll of keeping secrets. This powerhouse of a story is equally packed with action and emotion, and is sure to be another major hit.”

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“Men tell stories,” I say. It is the truest, simplest answer to his question. “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. Your sister was as desperate to forget it as I was. Maybe that was another mistake I made—letting her forget. Maybe we should have talked about it.”
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