“I’ll be brave,” she said. “You just tell my sister that she needs to start being afraid.”
– Kristin Hannah, The Nightingale
As much as The Nightingale is a story of the Second World War, it’s not about the conflict itself: the book has very little to do with soldiers, weapons, generals and presidents and leaders, battles lost and won. Instead, Kristin Hannah’s novel focuses on those trapped in the midst of war, and yet always on its periphery: the noncombatants, those left behind when the men went off to war, who must struggle for survival in a homeland that has become enemy territory. In particular, it is the story of two sisters, as different as night and day, and through them, an exploration of two opposing yet equally valid expressions of heroism. It is a novel of love and courage, sacrifice and survival, regret and redemption, and all of the myriad forms they can take.
In the summer of 1939, Viann Mauriac (nee Rossignol) has come through years of tragedy and heartbreak to build an almost idyllic life for herself out of the wreckage with her husband and daughter. She knows war and upheaval are coming (how can she not?), but she refuses to even think about it, instead clinging to what she has with both hands, paralyzed with fear and desperate to preserve her fragile joy. Nearly ten years her junior, her sister Isabelle has spent most of her nineteen years in boarding schools; their father was such in name only, utterly broken by his experiences in the previous war, and therefore completely unable to care for the girls after his wife died. Viann in turn was too young and too lost in her own grief to take on the maternal role that Isabelle needed, and withdrew deeper into herself even as Isabelle lashed out in a desperate plea for attention and affection. Their relationship is riddled with deep, yawning fissures, with a great deal of pain and hurt over the years on both sides: rarely inflicted intentionally, but there nonetheless. Now on the verge of adulthood, Isabelle is outspoken, headstrong, and utterly fearless; she is frantically searching for a purpose in life, to be wanted and needed by someone, anyone. She doesn’t exactly welcome the war, but she yearns to throw herself headlong into it, to contribute and be a part of something larger than herself.
Then war does come, and with it the German occupation of France.
As The Nightingale makes clear, resistance to the Nazis was largely the work of women, because who else was left to do the job? Who else was above (or rather, beneath) suspicion? Certainly not a young, pretty girl, flirtatious and full of life, or a quiet, obviously terrified mother, whose only seeming concern is the safety and well-being of her daughter. I spoke at length on this topic last year in my review of Karen Abbott’s Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, but men in war-torn France were just as likely to overlook the women in their midst as their counterparts were during the American Civil War, and so both Viann and Isabelle, in their own individual ways, are compelled do what no one else will, what no one else can. They must walk through the crucible of war and occupation, and neither emerges unscathed.
Isabelle, all fire and lightning and rebellion as the novel opens, has cocooned herself in an almost impenetrable armor to hide a marshmallow-soft center, and a desperate craving for love, acceptance and affection. Viann is just the opposite, sweet and soft and yielding, but all of her candy-floss pliability is wrapped around a steel core, unknown even to herself. Isabelle is absolutely fearless, primarily because she feels that she has nothing to lose or hold her back; she is a young, unfocused girl, searching for purpose and meaning. The war and the necessary work of the Resistance gives her that, and so she flings herself into the cause unhesitatingly, willing to risk everything for the chance to make a difference. Viann begins the war terrified, afraid to lose her happiness, happiness she has clawed from a morass of loss and despair. As result, her initial instinct is to keep her head down and remain unnoticed, to hide and protect her daughter, and only gradually does she find the courage to subtly, covertly stand up for what is right. Separately, Viann and Isabelle discover what is worth dying for, but even more importantly, they come to decide what is worth living for: the reasons to survive and to continue surviving, no matter the costs – and the costs are devastatingly high.
It’s a brutal and heart-breaking world they find themselves in, and yet there is still the capacity for joy and compassion after and even in the midst of great pain and suffering. There is love throughout the novel, in all its many forms: love found, love denied, love blighted, love lost and love regained. It is in the little things (that are much larger than they first appear), small moments of love and kindness, that the women of France find and maintain hope that there is still something good in the world, from Viann’s daughter Sophie offering to don the Yellow Star in solidarity with her best friend, to an anonymous policeman protecting Isabelle from her own curiosity, warning her to not question events surrounding the Vel’ d’Hiv round-up to closely. Love provides the impetus for each woman to go to incredible lengths to survive, and to ensure the survival of others. It’s through love that Isabelle finally finds the meaning she has spent her life searching for, and the same allows Viann to open her heart to others beyond her immediate family circle, to become a part of something much larger than herself, and to discover her own particular brand of courage.