Thursday, October 20, 2016

Book review: The Nightingale

In love, we find out what we want to be
In war, we find out who we are

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah is a historical fictional novel set in France with World War II at its crux. Winner of the GoodReads Choice Awards for Historical Fiction in 2015, it has been gaining steady buzz since its release in February of 2015. The book has also earned spots on several bestseller lists, and was optioned for a screen adaptation by TriStar Pictures last year.

The novel chronicles the lives of two french sisters and their relationship with each other at the time of German occupation of France during the tumultuous WWII. It is a poignant tale that sheds light on the women who remained in the shadows under the Nazi regime yet played significant roles during the resistance movement. It highlights the extraordinary traits of womankind such as unbridled courage, selflessness, sacrifice, endurance and forgiveness.

I must admit that this is the first book I read on kindle. I have never been keen on eBook readers but made an effort with this one because it had been heavily recommended. I am old fashioned in the sense that, for me, nothing compares to the look, feel and smell of a print book in my hands. It actually makes reading physically pleasurable and serves as a long-standing reminder of one's intellectual journey. I would any day prefer to sit down with a book inhaling its musty pages rather than stare down at a screen. I think it is a tragedy of epic proportions that local brick and mortar bookstores are meekly closing their doors thanks to the technology that introduced online retail. Oh well! I'm sure my grumbling changes nothing so I might as well get with the times. It wasn't as bad an experience as I expected it to be though (don't take that to mean that I have become a convert!). My love for print books will always remain an undying one. 

Vianne and Isabelle are two sisters born to French parents. Their ordinary lives come to a screeching halt after their beloved mother dies and their father Julien (a broken man after the World War I), abandons them and packs them off to live with an unkind stranger at their ancestral home of Le Jardin in the quiet village of Carriveau. Vianne comes to terms with the harsh reality and finds solace in a local lad Antoine while young Isabelle struggles to comprehend the turn of events and becomes unmanageable. Caught up in her own personal problems, an emotionally unavailable Vianne neglects her little sister who is unceremoniously cast away to boarding school. 

While Vianne settles into a life of quiet domesticity at Le Jardin with Antoine, her sister is thrust into a life of desolation. Rebellious, willful and impetuous by nature, Isabelle makes a habit of running away from boarding schools, convents and finishing school, frequently getting into trouble and sneaking out of windows and onto trains. 

When Isabelle has finally had enough of her vagabond lifestyle, she returns to her father in Paris only to be shunned again and sent to live with her sister in Carriveau. By then, the world is upended as German troops march into France. Isabelle is forced to make the harrowing exodus out of Paris amidst gunfire and bombings along with a newly acquired companion, Gaëtan. Back in Carriveau, Antoine is dispatched to war leaving Vianne alone to fend for their young daughter Sophie. The Germans take over the village with a Wehrmacht officer Wolfgang Beck billeting at Le Jardin. Isabelle is furious with the Nazi intrusion and desperately wants to aid in the struggle for freedom but Vianne, fearing for her daughter's safety, only seeks survival. Being of opposite temperaments, the two sisters come to loggerheads over several matters during the trying times. When Isabelle, staunch in her beliefs, is offered to play a noteworthy role in the French Resistance, she grabs the opportunity. She starts off by distributing anti-Nazi propaganda but then moves on to more perilous missions. Aided by her father and a group of freedom fighters, she goes by the code-name 'The Nightingale' and secretly shepherds downed allied airmen out of France, beyond the treacherous Pyrenees mountains under the Nazi noses into neutral Spain. 

While Vianne struggles to pull through and keep Sophie from harm's way in a city under siege where oppression is at its peak, rations are scarce, winters are unforgiving, disease is rampant and even one wrong utterance can spell death, Isabelle and her compatriots go on to save the lives of several men. During one of Isabelle's rescue attempts, she finds herself in Carriveau and unintentionally puts Vianne and Sophie in grave danger. In the ensuing mayhem, Beck is killed. Vianne is enraged with Isabelle and turns her back on her sister for her recklessness. 

The death of Beck brings a most unwelcome guest, SS officer Von Richter at Le Jardin who is abusive towards Vianne and makes her life even more deplorable. By then, Vianne has adopted the three-year-old Ariel, the son of her Jewish best friend Rachel (who gets deported to a concentration camp) and shields him from the inquisitive eyes of the Nazis and their collaborators. War brings out an unprecedented surge of courage in Vianne and right under Von Richter's tyranny, she starts sheltering Jewish children to save them from the fate of certain death in concentration camps. Meanwhile, Isabelle is finally captured and brutally tortured into revealing the name of The Nightingale. As a final attempt to be the father he had never been to his daughters, Julien confesses to being The Nightingale and is publicly executed by a firing squad. A severely battered Isabelle is then sent to a concentration camp in Ravensbrück as a political prisoner. 

As the war comes to an end, Vianne finds out she is expecting a child and decides to keep the bitter truth behind the conception from Antoine who has just returned home after years of imprisonment. Ariel is taken away from the family to go live with his relatives in America leaving a heartbroken Vianne. Concurrently, Isabelle is sent back to Carriveau to recuperate from her terrible ordeal. There she is reunited with her only love Gaëtan who has also miraculously survived the war. After witnessing the atrocities of the war, living through years of privations, having lost loved ones and being irreparably scarred for the rest of their lives, the two sisters face their inner demons and forge a bond after all those forfeited years of estrangement. 

Read the book for the inspiring full story, especially for the melancholic and moving ending.

My thoughts....
The book uses the frame story literary device; the frame is presented in first-person narration from an elderly woman living in Oregon in 1995 in the form of flashbacks. The main action of the book, however, is told in third person following the life events of the two sisters in France from 1939 to 1945.

The novel is absorbing right from the first page. The way the author introduces her characters, brings them to life and progresses with the narrative is astute and evocative. Her prose is elementary and without frills which makes for effortless reading. The author's vivid description of France, makes the reader fall in love with the quaintness of it all. As the story moves forward at breakneck speed, the reader is offered panoramic views of the ravages of WWII from an often-untold woman's point of view. The manner in which the author has recounted the pain and suffering of the French people at the hands of the Nazis, transports the reader to a bygone era and evokes a deep sense of compassion. The love stories in the book somewhat dilute the graveness of that dark period in history which I believe was far more cataclysmic but that's what makes it a light-hearted read (along with being historically informative). It appears as if the author has taken a few liberties here and there but then again, being a work of fiction, I think it is excusable. What I liked about the book is how it sends the uplifting message that women have always been strong in the face of adversity, but have not been recognized enough for their efforts. In the aftermath of war, men typically walk away with all the credit. In stark contrast, actions of women in wartime are often overlooked and eventually forgotten. It is refreshing for someone to come along and point that out.

There is an emotional connection not only to the main protagonist but also the well-drawn supporting characters. Isabelle is initially portrayed as a rebellious eighteen-year-old girl, searching for purpose with all the reckless passion of youth. But she comes of age by the end of the story. Through heroic acts of subterfuge and defiance, she champions her cause with a selflessness that is far beyond her years. She is everything a hero ought to be - brave, loyal, principled and someone who wears their heart on their sleeve. Her character is modeled after a 19-year old Belgian woman, Andrée de Jongh, who helped downed Allied pilots to escape Nazi territory. Much like Isabelle, de Jongh personally escorted many over the Pyrenees on foot; by the end of the war, she had done so for 118 people. However there are differences between Isabelle's and de Jongh's life story which I would not want to reveal (read the book!). The other interesting characters are: Vianne who undergoes an intriguing metamorphosis from resignation to active resistance, Sophie who is stripped of the innocence of childhood yet remains warm-hearted and Ariel whose world is ripped apart but survives against all odds. Even Beck who although the 'enemy' is shown to have a genteel side and makes the reader wonder just for a teeny bit if he truly deserved his fate.

I have read several books about the holocaust (some much more graphic than this one) and yet every time I read about it, I just can't wrap my brain around the kind of horrors that took place during WWII. When just reading about it can be such a harrowing experience, I can't even begin to imagine what living in those wretched times must have been like. Although not maudlin, there were certain parts in the book that had me reaching for tissues. This is a riveting and inspiring piece of work that celebrates the strength of women and the resilience of the human spirit. This is not a book that I will easily forget - the characters and story is going to be etched in my mind for a long time to come. If I feel the memories of it begin to fade, then I wouldn't mind reading it again!

There is a quote by William Styron which goes like this - "A good book should leave you….slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives when reading it". These are precisely my sentiments on The Nightingale.


My rating for this book is

Have you read this book? If yes, what did you think about it? I would love to hear your thoughts. Drop a comment to let me know....


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