I was pretty sceptical when I read the first few pages of “The Nightingale” by Kristin Hannah. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to read another WWII story; the subject is inexhaustible and books like “The Lost” and “Le rapport de Brodek” have stayed with me for a long time. But I had serious doubts about how the author was writing this story of two French sisters’ lives playing out in the catastrophe of world war.
A basic mistake about a major character’s age occurs very early on in the book (Vianne ages from 14 to 17 whereas her sister Isabelle stays 4 – aren’t editors meant to pick these things up?) The dialogue seemed totally anachronistic and the sprinkling in the narrative of the few French words any non French-speaker is likely to understand was clunky. “Voilà,” Rachel said. “Our plan. Should we open a bottle of cognac now, or gin?”/ “It’s ten o’clock in the morning.”/ “You’re right. Of course. A French 75.” None of this feels authentic, not the morning drinking, the presence of gin in a French kitchen in 1939, or referring to wine as a “French 75”; what other kind than French wine was there back then? The house would have contained some pretty undrinkable red plonk for daily consumption and a dusty bottle of neat spirit with a pear or other piece of fruit that had been placed inside it about twenty years previously. (I know this, because that’s what my French grandparents’ house contained, alcohol-wise). And to round off my bitching about the prose, I must say that I found all the food references excruciating: “Vianne picked up a canelé and took a bite, savouring the vanilla-rich cream center and crispy, slightly burned-tasting exterior.” The Lord preserve us from yet another person discovering French food and writing banalities about it…
Rant over. No more nasty comments. I soon dropped my sarcastic annotations as the story unfolded. I became engrossed in yet another take on the well-worn tales of family disunity and the ravages of war.
********Slight spoilers follow******
Vianne’s encounter with the enemy made me want to read “Le silence de la mer” by Vercors again. However, Vianne has more to contend with than a German officer who delivers impassioned monologues about the wonderful French civilisation to his “hosts” in their library every evening. And the detail of the successive decisions she makes and the actions she takes is what kept me turning the pages. Like many readers I’m sure, I couldn’t help but wonder: “what would I have done?”
Isabelle’s chosen survival path, on the other hand, follows the more flamboyant end of the resistance spectrum. She is the impetuous and heroic one and her story will become the stuff of legends. I definitely didn’t wonder if I’d have acted like her: I can’t envisage myself hiking across the Pyrenees in fantastically dangerous conditions…
Vianne looks after children, Isabelle looks after fighting men and “The Nightingale” does a good job of chronicling their respective struggles and making us think about them.