“If I have learned 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”
The idea of ‘reviewing’ a book this profoundly impactful is a daunting task. How can you summarise a story of such depth and sorrow and tie it up with a neat little bow? How can you begin to critique the gruesome reality of what one of the worst periods of modern history was like for so many millions across the world? I will begin by saying this book is without a doubt one of the best I’ve read in several years; a deeply moving celebration of the bravery and strength of women, and a lesson in love, selflessness, and courage in a time of greatest uncertainty.
The novel begins in America, 1995. An elderly woman rifling through old papers, reflecting on the suppressed but not forgotten memories of a lifetime ago. We are drawn back into pre-wartime France, and so the journey begins. I find stories set in this period of history grimly fascinating, and yet of all the wartime novels I’ve read not once have I come across the story of the women’s war. To say The Nightingale opened my eyes to the depth of suffering women also experienced would be an understatement, and there were so many struggles they had to battle far beyond the ration cards and blackouts we all learnt about in school. Hundreds of thousands of untold stories of equal parts bravery and grief that have been cast aside for all these years.
Sisters Vianne and Isabelle were faced with so many impossible choices and moral dilemmas within the novel it was difficult to see a way out; choices which I now realise refugees and those left behind must have been faced with every day. Would you be brave enough to put not only your own life, but the life of your child, on the line for the sake of a stranger? How far would you go to protect the people you loved? The Nightingale also did an excellent job of humanising the enemy whilst demonstrating the true extent of their cruelty at the same time.
Whilst extremely different characters within themselves, both Vianne and Isabelle’s enormous bravery shone through and took flight in their own ways and served as a reminder that strength can take so many different forms. I found it impossibly hard to predict the direction in which each of their stories would head. All of the characters in the novel were beautifully crafted in an extremely graphic and uncomfortable setting which was often difficult (but extremely necessary) to read.
The Nightingale is the easiest five stars I’ve ever given. A truly inspiring feminist masterpiece which also allowed space for love in a time when all hope for humanity was lost. This is a story that will stay with me forever.
Trigger warnings: war, loss of a loved one, loss of a child, abandonment, miscarrying, violence, gore, death, anti-Semitism, talk of suicide, cancer, slavery, labor camps, sexual assault, rape, and abuse.