Sitting firmly within my favourite genre, historical fiction set during WWII in Europe, The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, seemed to tick all of the right boxes for me, so it was with high hopes that I approached this much-anticipated and widely lauded book from an author I had not read before.
I will say right now, before I go any further, that The Nightingale is without doubt the best book I have ever read. And I have read a lot of books. Thousands. This book has touched me so deeply that writing a review is not enough. So what follows is a reflection on why The Nightingale has knocked me for six.
This story is not just about World War II. It’s more a story about the resistance in France during the war years, about two sisters who both choose a path of resistance, despite their very different circumstances and obligations. The author quotes Remco Campert within the pages of the book:
“Ask yourself a question, that’s how resistance begins. And then ask that very question to someone else.”
I find this quote so profound and it cuts right to the core of what this story is about. Resisting. Not for the sake of it, not because you hate the enemy, or because you’re an inherently disruptive individual. Resist because it is the only thing you can do. It is the only thing you have left. Small acts of resistance add up. They build up and flow on and before you know it, they make a monumental difference. One sister in this book decided to go hard with her resistance; the other took a more discreet approach. But the actions of both made a difference to multiple lives.
The Nightingale is written with brutal honesty. It wounds you to read it because you know that every single thing that happens on every page happened to someone during WWII. The scale of the madness; it’s almost too much to comprehend.
Given that this genre is my favourite, you would expect that I would not be so affected by what I read in The Nightingale. After all, I’ve read, and studied while at University, so many books and texts on the war. This should not have been new to me.
And it wasn’t. That was the problem.
Because I have heard a version of this story before. Kristin Hannah merely brought it all to life for me in a way I had not been able to appreciate before now. You see, my grandfather lived through all of this. He could have been Gaetan or Henri from the story, the similarities are so striking. I grew up hearing about the war in a very non-specific way. If I complained that my socks were too small, I would be subjected to a talk on how I had no idea what small socks were. You never ever said you didn’t want to eat something. If you did, you only made that mistake once. We never ate garlic but didn’t know why; the house was always far too hot; the garden bursting with more vegetables than we could possibly eat. It danced around us, this long ago war that my grandfather had ‘been in’, none of us knowing anything specific, yet each of us understanding that it was important to be respectful of our grandfather’s past.
When I was twenty-two, I visited my grandfather for a week and for the first time in our lives, we were alone together. My grandmother was away in Europe. While I loved my grandfather dearly, I felt the awkwardness of us being alone pressing in. To bridge the gap, I started to talk too much, mostly about my university studies and the things I thought would interest him. I had always held my grandfather’s intelligence in high regard. Something happened between us part way though that week. I don’t know exactly what I said or did that made the difference, but at one point, my grandfather turned to me and began to tell me about his war. What he told me changed my view of so many things in a such a profound way and I began to understand who my grandfather really was beyond the surface of him being ‘just my grandfather’.
When Hitler destroyed Belgium in the early days of WWII, my grandfather and his brothers, along with many others, tunnelled below the snow and hid for weeks, eventually making their way into France where he became an active member of the French Resistance, and later, the Belgian Resistance. He spoke of many things over the course of our few days together. It was as though once he started to speak of it, he couldn’t stop.
Eating bread that wasn’t really bread with garlic to mask the taste. Drinking coffee that was made from barley or chicory, either too thin or so thick it resembled molasses yet always tasted bad. The clawing hunger. The heavy darkness. Cold that wouldn’t leave you for months on end. Rotting feet; stripping corpses of their clothes and shoes and never wearing anything that fit. Rescuing pilots and moving them to safety so they could eventually escape occupied France and return to fly and bomb again. Blowing up bridges and generally disrupting Nazi rule.
My grandfather lived and breathed a life of total anarchy for years with a cyanide capsule tucked into the lining of his coat, just in case he ever got captured himself.
He never did. He evaded capture and lived to see peace restored and his country rebuilt. He eventually moved to Australia while his two brothers’ never left France – one dead during the war years and the other choosing to make France his permanent home. For twenty-two years I had lived my life not knowing what a hero my grandfather was. He had saved lives. He had fought for freedom. He had risked everything because he had nothing to lose. It was all already gone.
He was a resistor and a survivor.
After he died, about ten years after sharing his story with me, my grandmother sent me a package that had a note in my grandfather’s handwriting on the front. He wanted me to have all of his old photographs. This gesture meant so much to me. He had entrusted me with his history. It is a responsibility I don’t take lightly. It’s an honour that touches me deeply.
So, in light of all this, The Nightingale reached in and grabbed me by the heart, and it still hasn’t let me go. It’s a masterpiece in my opinion and I thank Kristin Hannah for writing it even though she states in the front of the book that she tried not to. She’s done a beautiful job of bringing that period of history to life and showcasing it in the manner it deserves.
The two photo’s here show my grandfather as he was in the war. The larger photo of him in uniform had only 1939 scrawled on the back. The smaller one shows him squatting down on the end and had December 1945 Paris, written on the back.
Another excellent fictionalised retelling of resistance during WWII is the French television mini-series, Resistance. Australian viewers can watch this on SBS On Demand. I highly recommend this mini-series but do make sure you have some tissues handy. It’s incredibly emotional viewing.