I have read a lot about World War II, from brutality of the concentration camps in The Tattooist of Auschwitz to the ‘what ifs’ of Life After Life and the preservation of a French treasure in All the Light We Cannot See. Despite their common theme, somehow each writer reveals a different side of the war. So it is with Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale.
The story takes place in France from the start of the World War II, in a household that has already felt the pain of one World War.
At first, as the reality of another war emerges, Vianne, whose father returned from World War I a different man to the one who left, is in denial that another war could be on the doorstep. But her husband, Antoine, is soon called to enlist. From then on, Vianne is fighting to protect her daughter – a mission that is in many ways impossible. The war reaches their farmhouse as German troops claim parts of France, leading to constant fear, food shortages and many disturbingly close encounters with the enemy.
At the same time, Vianne’s sister, Isabelle, refuses to stand aside and watch France ruined by the German forces, joining the resistance and putting herself, and even Vianne and her daughter, at risk.
The experience of the family in wartime France was fascinating and at times, heart breaking, as Hannah uncovers the great hardships the French faced during this war, and the constant threat from the German soldiers. It was a perspective that I had not seen until The Nightingale. I never realised how much France itself was a battleground on an everyday level.
It is hard to imagine a book about World War II not being a story of deep sadness and loss, and this is certainly the case with The Nightingale. No characters emerge from the experience unchanged, or unharmed. Some of the losses were enough to make me cry into the pages, which is a rare sign of the power of a book. I enjoyed the combination of the historical and the personal that can be found in many books about the world wars.
However, The Nightingale was also a book of hope, and a celebration of the role that women played in the war, doing all that they could to keep their families alive and fighting for their country. It is an important message and a reminder of the everyday horror of war, not just on the frontline, but for anyone caught in the wide shadow that the war cast.
The Nightingale is one of the best books on war that I have read for some time, among many worthwhile and moving books of the time.