Book Review: The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

The Nightingale - Kristin Hannah
The Nightingale – Kristin Hannah

The Nightingale offers a interesting conundrum to a book reader. It’s an engaging, easy-to-read story and so it’s not hard to understand why so many readers seem to have fallen in love with it recently. On the other hand, it’s also not very well-written.

After hearing some rave reviews of Kristin Hannah’s latest novel (I’d never read her before) I was interested to get my hands on a copy. The chapters are short and there’s enough action to keep you pushing forward but I found the early sections a slog. Hannah’s writing is full of cliches and the sentence structure itself suffers from a lack of variation. Everything you expect to happen in this book happens.The power of Hannah’s story-telling is that she has chosen a compelling time and place on which to focus – occupied France during the Second World War.

Vianne and Isabelle Rossignol are sisters who have been distant most of their lives, ever since their mother died and their father effectively abandoned them. Vianne has made a life for herself in the small town of Carriveau, with her husband Antoine and their daughter Sophie. Isabelle has just been expelled from yet another boarding school as war creeps across the borders of their country. When Antoine is sent to fight at the frontlines and Isabelle is relegated to the country by their father, Vianne and Isabelle are forced to live together once again, along with a German officer, Beck, billeted in their home.

Isabelle – who inexplicably fell in love with a completely random, and pretty unlikeable, man on her way from Paris to Carriveau – quickly joins in the efforts of the French Resistance and her days in Carriveau come to an end. From here the story diverges to follow both of these sisters. Isabelle’s increasingly daring exploits with the Resistance. Vianne’s struggles to provide for her daughter and the growing question of right and wrong as the Nazi presence becomes heavier in her town and her home.

The story itself is compelling because this is compelling history. The grief (and, yes, I cried at parts) and the tension come from the real life knowledge that these things happened. Neighbours turned on neighbours; Jewish families lost their businesses, their rights, and their lives. Regular people were faced with monumental and impossible tasks – choosing to protect others at the risk of their own lives. This is where the depth of the novel exists.

Similar depths are harder to find in the Rossignol sisters. Both are impossibly beautiful and seem only to have to decide to do something for it to be done. Despite the difficult setting of occupied France, their individual obstacles don’t actually seem that great. When Isabelle hatches a daring rescue plan that’s never been tried before she just does it. There’s almost no tension because she never fails at anything.

Vianne spends most of the novel trying to keep her head down and protect her daughter, until the war creeps ever closer and she finally feels the need to act. And then, again, she simple does so and even though what she’s doing is incredibly risky, it never feels like she’ll get caught.

Hannah does do well at covering a broad spectrum of what life in France during World War Two might have been like. (Seriously, if it happened in France in the 1940s, it happens to these two sisters.) And she clearly knows how to tug at people’s emotions. If she could avoid cliched descriptions and create more nuanced characters, this book would be far more worthy of the praise it’s been receiving.

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