‘If I have learnt 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. Today’s young people want to know everything about everyone. They think talking about a problem will solve it. I come from a quieter generation. We understand the value of forgetting, the lure of reinvention.’
It all begins in the summer of 1939, France. Whispers of war are in the air, but in the small town of Carriveau, where Vianne Mauriac and her husband Antoine watch their daughter Sophie play in the afternoon sunshine, it’s the last thing she wants to think about.
But all too soon, the skies darken over Europe, and a generation of men are heading off into the unknown horrors of war – again.
Vianne’s impetuous younger sister, Isabelle, is sent away from Paris to live in Carriveau, to be kept at arm’s reach from danger. But when the German soldiers begin to arrive in the down, seizing property and valuables, demanding residence in local homes, and indulging on meats, cheeses and fine wines in the midst of crying children slowly growing hungrier, Isabelle cannot sit back and watch.
She soon becomes embroiled in a local organisation taking up resistance against the Germans, spreading reports containing the truth – a rare commodity in an occupied town with no access to the news or radio. Before long, bigger and far more dangerous plans arise. She ventures back to Paris, a city which, less than a year after her departure, has been irrevocably changed.
‘Her beloved city was like a once-beautiful courtesan grown old and thin, weary, abandoned by her lovers. In less than a year, this magnificent city had been stripped of its essence by the endless clatter of German jackboots on the streets and disfigured by swastikas that flew from every monument.’
Her new role as ‘The Nightingale’ is a perilous one. Tasked with aiding foreign airmen who have landed in France and desperate to evade capture, she hatches a plan to assist their escape. But the only way to leave the country is by making the treacherous journey over the Pyrenees on foot. Soon, the Nazis catch wind of her success, putting her in ever-greater danger.
Meanwhile in Carriveau, life changes dramatically for Vianne and Sophie. As a teacher at the local school, Vianne is asked to provide the Nazi stationed at their home, Captain Beck, with a list of the Jewish members of staff. Vianne, thoughtlessly, gives the name of Rachel, her best friend. Soon all Jews in town are fired. Then comes the star of David armbands. Then the trucks arrive. A narrative that is all too familiar to us now – but read through the lens of a personal tragedy, the horror is even more acute. Vianne, overcome with guilt, begins to aid the resistance by finding sanctuary for the Jewish children of the town.
I had high expectations of The Nightingale due to its rave reviews – and for the first half of the book, I felt that such high accolades were unmerited. However, in the second half, the energy picks up and I found myself engrossed.
The last book I read about occupied France during World War Two was the much-acclaimed All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doer – a stunning novel with such meticulous prose and well-crafted narrative that reading it was a fully immersive experience.
The Nightingale isn’t as exquisite a book as Doer’s, but it should be valued in its own right. It should be praised for the way in which it brings to light the bravery of the oft-forgotten heroes of the war, the women who risked everything. Here, these women have a voice. Their stories are just as important as those of the soldiers sent off to the battlefield.
The ending is what pushed this novel up to a four-star rating for me; beautifully well-handled, I found myself in tears as it drew to a close. The novels asks; how do we rebuild a life after our world has been so decimated by war? How can we learn to live with what we have seen, what we have done to survive? How do we conceptualise our existence in the wake of such horrors?
‘He thinks that one’s life can be distilled to a narrative that has a beginning and an end. He knows nothing about the kind of sacrifice that, once made, can never be either fully forgotten or fully borne.’
In these uncertain times, I feel it is more important than ever to remember how hatred, fear, and mistrust of ‘the other’ creates a perfect storm for these unimaginable horrors. We all have a part to play in making sure nothing like the Holocaust ever happens again. After all, the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.