Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Nightingale by Kristen Hannah

Hard on the heels of the thrilling novel of World War II and a pair of youngsters caught up in the Nazi invasion of France, I approached Kristin Hannah’s latest novel, The Nightingale, which involves the same subject.  This time, however, no young German boys were involved.  Anthony Doerr’s novel, All the Light We Cannot See, would be a hard act to follow.  Kristin Hannah has placed a close second to Doerr.

Kristin Hannah has written a slew of novels and has an impressive list of awards.  She lives in Hawaii and the Pacific Northwest with her son.

The Nightingale tells the story of two sisters.  When their mother died, their father shipped them off to boarding school.  Vianne, the elder of the two, becomes pregnant and soon marries the father of her daughter, Sophie.  Vianne’s father does not approve of the husband or the marriage, so he sends her and Sophie to a summer home in the south of France.  Meanwhile, her younger sister, Isabelle, is charming, beautiful, precocious, and very much the rebel.  She runs away numerous times, and finally is expelled from the school.  She returns to Paris and her father’s bookstore.  Then, the Nazis invade France, and chaos takes over.  Papa orders her out of the house, gives her money for a travel to Carriveau to join Vianne in what he believes to be relative safety.

Vianne’s husband leaves for the front, and is soon a P.O.W.  Shortages begin, and then the Germans arrive and occupy the town.  Vianne’s house is requisitioned by a German Captain.  She must allow him to live in her home, or Captain Beck will seize the house and expel her and Sophie.  Then Isabelle shows up.  All this occurs in the first 20 pages or so, so the meat of the plot lies sprawled before the reader.

While exciting in spots, something about the writing seemed a bit off in places.  I detected shades of a romance novel here and there, which is Hannah’s primary genre.  However, I never wanted to abandon the novel, even though I believe I subconsciously compared Hannah to Doerr.  The novel is heavy on dialogue, and I found myself wishing for more introspection, more description.  Here is a sample of Isabelle’s desperate attempt to escape Paris.  Hannah writes, “Hours passed.  The automobile made its slow, agonizing way south.  Isabelle was grateful for the dust.  It coated the window and obscured the terrible, depressing scene. // People.  Everywhere.  In front of them, behind them, beside them, so thick was the crowd that the automobile could only inch forward in fits and starts.  It was like driving through a swarm of bees that pulled apart for a second and then swarmed again.  The sun was punishingly hot.  It turned the smelly automobile interior into an oven and beat down on the women outside who were shuffling toward…what?  No one knew what exactly was happening to them or where safety lay ahead. // The car lurched forward and stopped hard.  Isabelle hit the seat in front of her.  The children immediately began to cry for their mother. // ‘Merde.’  Monsieur Humbert Muttered. // ‘M’sieur Humbert,’ Patricia said primly.  ‘The Children.’ // An old woman pounded on the car’s bonnet as she shuffled past. // ‘That’s it, then, Madame Humbert.’ he said.  ‘We are out of petrol’”  (36).

I also encountered a few phrases my creative writing class might recognize as clich├ęs.  But despite all the minor drawbacks, it is an exciting story with lots of twists and turns.  Kristin Hannah’s latest novel, The Nightingale will certainly hold a reader’s attention all the way to the end.  4-1/2 stars.

--Chiron, 9/8/15

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