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literary inklings

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The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah


In her new novel, The Nightingale, Kristin Hannah shows readers a Nazi-occupied France through the eyes of the women kept prisoner in their own homeland.

Kristin Hannah’s newest novel is the story of sisters Isabelle and Viann, young women still feeling the aftershocks of the First World War, which uprooted their lives and made their father a stranger to them. After their mother’s death, the ties that bound their family seemed altogether severed; Isabelle was sent off to boarding school after boarding school while Viann married the young love of her life and began trying to stitch together a new story for her new family in the country. But when World War II erupts in Europe and Nazi officers begin occupying France, Viann and Isabelle’s lives are pushed and pulled again – joined together, ripped apart, even as they both fumble with the ultimately indestructible tatters of their sisterhood.

There’s so much to The Nightingale that touches the heart – so much sorrow, so much courage, so much importance – that it becomes a bit challenging to write about it all. Capturing the full essence of the novel’s powerful story, beautifully written as it is, feels a bit intimidating. It's proof that words are our most important tool for relaying emotions and experiences, the way Hannah wields them with such tender care and honesty. The story of unruly Isabelle and anxious Viann, both brave in their own ways, is captivating enough on its own, but through it Hannah also gives voice to the millions of women who've since been silenced by the ravages of the war. Isabelle, Viann, Anouk, Rachel, Sophie; all the female characters across the novel are stalwart remembrances of unthinkable strife, speaking and acting for the many women who lived through it. Hannah does not hold back, not in her descriptions or her storytelling, nor in her research and her dedication to these women. The result makes for a novel as heartbreaking as it is empowering, as challenging as it is necessary, and the artistry behind it all is makes The Nightingale resonate at an even deeper level.

With her careful attention and thoughtful prose, Hannah recreates WWII France in an entirely new light, letting it be seen through a unique set of eyes: the women who bore witness. Though the reader is taken into both the concentration camps and the struggles of the French resistance, it's the position of these women as domestic prisoners that creates the palpable connection between the reader and the horrors of the experiences. These women have, in many cases, been forgotten by history, much as they were overlooked by the enemy in their homeland. They were Christian women whom the enemy - and maybe everyone else - expected would wait in the shadows for salvation. But they too have their own extraordinary story or resilience, courage, and survival. You feel the plight of these women so profoundly and the sadness of the situation becomes so tangible as to truly break your heart.

This unexpected doorway into the past is handled beautifully and reverentially by Hannah. She fills her novel with characters and scenes that call up a vision of the war that is somehow new while being at the same time frighteningly familiar: a young Nazi solider missing his family abroad and clipped by his own horror of the crimes being planned by his countrymen, or the fearful yet curious whispers of civilians which begin to tell of places with strange names where unknown things are happening. It culminates into an all-encompassing experience of the fathomless grief of the time. The sheer emotional turmoil hangs like a dense fog over the story, and it too becomes shaped by the author's attention; it, too, becomes a tribute. But despite the intense sadness of so much of this history, at the core of the novel is a celebration of heroism and a tribute to the unique, inseparable bonds of sisterhood. The Nightingale is a very brave, heartfelt novel, earnest in its determination to sway its reader fully into the chaotic rhythm of its history. The collective efforts - of the author, of the characters, who seem too lifelike to be fictitious, of the haunting memories that the atmosphere plants into the heart of the reader - is a true and admirable triumph of hope in an age of devastation.

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