Book Review: The Nightingale
“ In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are.” The historical fiction novel, The Nightingale, opens with an elderly woman reflecting on the Nazi occupation of France in World War II. Aware that terminal cancer will soon bring her life to an end, she is haunted by her past and compelled to revisit old memories of love, family and loyalty.
It is a tale of ordinary people forced into an environment so gruesome, so inhumane, yet driven to carry out extraordinary acts of compassion and bravery. The story focuses on the lives of two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle, already struggling to cope with childhood emotional neglect following World War I. These women are pushed beyond any physical and emotional hardship they could possibly imagine. Working for the French resistance, they not only survive the war but change their and many other people’s lives.
The story contrasts two likeable protagonists: Vianne the older sister, wanting to conform and to do the right thing; Isabelle, a naïve and plucky eighteen-year-old, sometimes annoying but always determined. Over time, the circumstances of war cause Vianne to become more feisty and Isabelle less impulsive, and ultimately they see teach other’s point of view and become closer as a result.
The backdrop of WWII is harrowing, and the subtle but manipulative Nazi rule builds terror, division and betrayal among the communities. The author skilfully describes the impact of Nazi occupation on the French people: smaller inconveniences at first (rationing or curfews), escalating to the removal and death of Jews, communists and rebels.
The book highlights the important roles that women played in the French resistance during the war, and this encouraged me to read more about real heroines such as Andrée De Jongh (I do wish the characters in The Nightingale were less beautiful, and more plain, not necessarily relying on their looks to fool a German officer).
While there is a scattering of anachronisms and cliches, and I found some of the timelines unrealistic, I did enjoy the twists and turns and the ending was particularly moving. If you are a fan of WWII Historical, Women’s or Coming of Age fiction, or you enjoy the dynamics of evolving relationships, then you’ll enjoy reading The Nightingale.
The author pre-frames the novel by suggesting how we find out “who we want to be” and “who we are”. At the end, the main protagonist reflects on her life thus: “… I know now what matters, and it is not what I have lost. It is my memories. Wounds heal. Love lasts. We remain.”