“Men tell stories,” I say. It is the truest, simplest answer to his question. “Women get on with it. For us it was a shadow war. There were no parades for us when it was over, no medals or mentions in history books. We did what we had to during the war, and when it was over, we picked up the pieces and started our lives over. Your sister was as desperate to forget it as I was. Maybe that was another mistake I made – letting her forget. Maybe we should have talked about it.”
Kristin Hannah gives a voice to those unheard stories from the Second World War. The stories of the brave women, who didn’t just survive the horrors of the Nazi regime, but also went out of their way to play an active role during the French Resistance.
The Nightingale, the story of the Rossignol ( nightingale in French) sisters, starts in 1995, when Vianne receives an invitation for a ceremony to honour her sister, Isabelle’s valiant work during the war. What starts as a flashback by Vianne, eventually becomes a narrative in the voices of the two sisters, who were separated by a chasm not just due to the difference in their ages, but also their personalities and their experiences. While Isabelle, the rebel, played a very active role as the Nightingale, a key member of a team that helped smuggle RAF pilots across the Pyrenees into Spain where the British Consulate took over, Vianne, at great risk to the life of her own daughter, helped save nineteen Jewish children, who would have been sent to the camps, if not for her subterfuge.
The novel traces the hardships and horrors faced by the common man, the Jews, the innocent citizens and of course those who participated in the war, through strong characters and a tightly knit plot, that had me turning the pages in my quest to discover what happened to not just Vianne and Isabelle, but also Antoine, Gaëtan, Rachel, Henri, Anouk, Micheline, Julien and even Captain Beck, the German officer billeted to Vianne’s house during the Occupation years.
The cover page very aptly describes the novel as “heartbreakingly beautiful …. about the resilience of the human spirit and the durability of women.”As someone who has read multiple accounts of the trials and tribulations of women during the Second World War, as well as their contributions, I would say that this is one of the most poignantly written narratives on the subject, and definitely not a novel to be missed, especially if you are interested in the subject.