I am a sucker for war stories, especially the ones set during WWII. I’ve read a few of them, some true stories and some fiction, but Kristin Hannah’s ‘The Nightingale’ takes the cake. Set in France during the German occupation, this is a story about two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle Rossignol and how they cope with the ravages of war. After the men were deployed, the women left behind fought a different, a more silent and emotional war. The author explores this often ignored aspect of WWII and with great finesse at that. And that’s where this story is so refreshingly different.
“If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this: In love, we find out who we want to be, in war we find out who we are“. The Nightingale begins with this quote and it is really the heart of this story. Vianne has lived a blissful life with her husband and her 6-year old daughter in the idyllic town of Carriveau until rumors of war start trickling into the French countryside. But Vianne disregards them. She is convinced that they will be protected from German occupation. But unfortunately, war does come to Carriveau and her husband, Antoine is deployed.
Isabelle is then sent from Paris against her will to live with her sister. Vianne and Isabelle react to war in totally opposite ways. When a German officer is billeted in Vianne’s home, Isabelle is furious about living with the enemy. Her anger towards the Germans pushes her to join the Resistance against Nazi occupation. She goes on to put her life in danger over and over again to help British and American airmen get to Spain, to safety. This meant crossing the Pyrenees on foot, braving extreme weather and risk losing her life. She goes on to become one of most wanted spies. I chuckled when I read that they didn’t suspect a woman to be ‘The Nightingale’.
Vianne, however is the cautious one. She keeps her head down and gets by, trusting that the war will end soon and Antoine will return. As the story progresses, she finds herself without food or money and she is forced to make one difficult choice after another only to keep her daughter alive and safe.
It is extremely moving to read about harrowing conditions and trauma these women had to face. I found myself questioning what I would do, had I been in their shoes. Would I help a friend who is a Jew if it meant capital punishment? Would I flirt with danger only to serve my country? That’s what this book does to you. Kristin’s narration is so absorbing, she transported me to wartime France.
Vianne and Isabelle are both such wonderfully complex characters, so different in their sensibilities, yet joined together in the strength of their characters. The Rossignol sisters are representative of all the dauntless women everywhere who faced the horrors of WWII and whether they survived or not, they’re all heroes in their own unique way.