As much as I hate to admit it, I’m a bit of a book snob. I tend towards the literary side of fiction, rarely straying into books with more of a mass-market appeal. So, when I received The Nightingale as a birthday gift, I was a little weary. I was determined to read it, since I so rarely receive books as gifts (perhaps due to my aforementioned book snobbishness?), but I wasn’t sure I would actually like it.
And yet I did. I couldn’t put it down.
The Nightingale is the story of Nazi-occupied France as experienced by two sisters: mature, sensible Vianne and young, rebellious Isabelle. From the day Vianne’s husband marches off to war to the day the church bells peal freedom, Hannah follows these two sisters, shifting between their lives as Isabelle embarks on increasingly dangerous missions for the French Resistance while Vianne does all she can to protect her daughter and her friends. The story is framed by the thoughts and actions of an unnamed dying woman in 1995, who has kept her wartime experiences secret from her family for half a century.
I hadn’t heard of Hannah’s novel before I received my copy. Apparently, I’m late to the party. Since being published in 2015, it has sold millions, and a film adaptation is currently in the works. I can see the appeal of putting it on screen. Hannah has a vivid sense of detail, immersing the reader so fully into the sisters’ lives that it feels more like a memory than a work of fiction. You are there with Isabelle as she slips “terrorist” papers into the lining of her coat, just as you are with Vianne as she pads out her coat with paper to fight off the worst of the brutal winters.
Indeed, Hannah’s skill at capturing the mundane is a perfect fit for this novel, given the increasingly meagre rations the characters have to live on. Early in the novel, during the last few days of peacetime, Vianne and her family enjoy a leisurely picnic of “a crusty baguette, a wedge of rich, double-cream cheese, two apples, some slices of paper-thin Bayonne ham, and a bottle of Bollinger ’36” – then home to roast pork and potatoes and ile flottante for dessert. It contrasts with what the characters are able to come by in terms of food and drink after the Nazis begin hoarding all the good food: two ham hocks to last a week, followed later by octopus; endless cups of chicory and acorn coffee in place of the real thing. The use of food in the The Nightingale is a great signifier of the wider struggle during the occupation. Every time you think the characters are at their limit, surviving on as little food as possible, supplies get even scarcer and hope seems even further away.
Now, I’m not going to lie and say The Nightingale is a great work of literature. Hannah’s writing has a tendency of telling rather than showing, using adverbs where I would not consider them necessary, and often providing full pen portraits of characters as they are introduced. There were moments when the characterisation didn’t quite live up to my expectations – characters dealing with events a little too quickly or easily, or having important experiences in between time jumps that I would have liked to witness. At one point, for example, Isabelle takes part in one dangerous mission which goes off perfectly, having previously only been a low-level volunteer for the Resistance. The next time we see her (a chapter later), she is a knowledgeable, composed operative, confidently dealing with safe houses and downed airmen.
What Hannah can do, however, is tell a story. The plot was pacy and gripping, with more than enough twists to keep me on the edge of my seat. I felt for the characters, and for what – and who – they represented. Hannah is upfront about having been inspired to write The Nightingale after reading countless true stories of brave people – particularly the women – who struggled and fought against the Nazis during those horrific years. In her preface, she writes:
In war, women’s stories are all too often forgotten or overlooked. Women tend to come home from the battlefield and say nothing and go on with their lives. The Nightingale is a novel about those women and the daring, dangerous choices they made to save their children and their way of life.
The Nightingale‘s greatest achievement, I think, is that it effectively shines a little light on those forgotten and overlooked women. Yes, it is a work of fiction (although apparently inspired by real-life hero Andrée de Jongh), but it succeeds in shining a light on a perspective of the Second World War that, to my shame, I had not fully considered: not merely how the war impacted occupied women, but how those women actively took part in the war in their own ways, and the price they paid for their considerable efforts. As gripping as Hannah’s fictional narrative is, it is the reality of those women’s lives which ultimately need to be remembered. The Nightingale, I think, does a good job at honouring that reality.