Book Review: The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah

From Kristin Hannah’s website (as I couldn’t fathom, again, how to describe it. Lazy me).

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 a German captain requisitions Vianne’s home, she and her daughter must live with the enemy or lose everything. Without food or money or hope, as danger escalates all around them, she is forced to make one impossible choice after another to keep her family alive.
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 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. But when he betrays her, Isabelle joins the Resistance and never looks back, risking her life time and again to save others.

This book was a gift. A mother and daughter, both who’d adored and were moved to tears by The Nightingale. We shared a love of All The Light They Cannot See, The Night Circus, both spectacular books in their own rights. The Nightingale was a shadow in comparison. In truth, I nearly abandoned it. The writing strangled me, in a cliched, sycophantic noose. In the dilemma of whether to continue, or not. I sought out some reviews – the readership split. Some glowing, some disparaging.

In April, I took a five hour train ride to London; this might be the space to get me over the hump, the desire to throw the book against the wall. Several reasons, Kristin Hannah is a successful novelist, she makes income from her work. This was slush in places. A better edit, and a better discipline in writing. That irked me. In the early pages of the book, I could have photocopied a page, and edited the hell out of it – superlative, cliche, over-writing. It smacks of early draft writing in places. And then the crux of historical novel writing, credibility. Lazy Americanisms in the European setting, when in WWII, this was not influence (that really came later). Language that rubbed, like sand between damp toes. Sooner or later, it’s going to blister.

And yet, I went back to it. The story was one that needed to be told, the female heroes of the French Resistance, quietly going about their work. Hannah has a good story, this reader had to work, patiently, for it to be revealed. Her characters, moved her plot along, yes. Some were better defined than others, but the relationships let the story down. A perfect husband, sent to war. Sisters, one feral one good. A bad father. A mother died too soon. A kind Nazi. A sadist Nazi. A rugged lover who dared not to love. These were all a bit ‘flat’. No one that I really cared about as the story developed, And yet, at the close, as the threads of the past and the present knotted together, I was moved. The story shone through.

A month since I read it, and I’m still not sure whether to recommend it or not. That’s clever in its own right.

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