By Kirstin Hannah
The Nightingale is a best seller, deservedly so. I have read some of Hannah's other books (Magic Hour and Summer Island) and not necessarily been overly impressed, but she did a great job with this one.
In a rather timely piece, Hannah takes us to Vichy France, giving us a quick glimpse of the nation prior to Germany's invasion and then taking us on a heady journey following two sisters as they struggle to endure the hell that war brings. They have suffered rough childhoods - the early death of their mother and the abandonment of a father crippled by World War I.
Sister Isabelle, the younger, is in and out of boarding schools, and always searching for her father's love. Vianne, married and mother of one, lives in the family's older home in a more rural area. When war comes, each is impacted in different ways. Isabelle initially is sent from Paris to live with Vianne, and along the way sees the atrocities to come as a German plane guns down a legion of women and children before her eyes.
Vianne, more sheltered, thinks that things will only get so bad even though her husband leaves for war. After her sister disappears and heads back to Paris, though, things slowly become worse for Vianne as a soldier billets with her and she finds food and resources difficult. Then she must watch as her Jewish friend is herded into a cattle car on a train, and she knows her time has come to find her moral ground.
Isabelle, meanwhile, is keen to fight, and becomes part of the French underground. She leads downed Allied soldiers across the great mountain range that separates France from Spain, saving 127 flyers.
The book reads with historical accuracy - hopefully as well-researched as it seems to be - and the author manages an interesting trick of having the story told in "present day" (1995) by one of the sisters - only we don't know which one until the end.
It's a fast read even at 440 pages, and the intrigue and detail gives one much to ponder, especially if compared to the political climate of America today. Are we too doomed to determine our morality by the blood of our neighbors?
Certainly something to think about.