Book Review: The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

*Warning: Some spoilers!

Before reading this book, I was worried that I had simply read too many books about World War II and the Nazi Occupation. It’s a popular topic for historical non-fiction for good reasons, but I’ve been feeling a little maxed out, and have a few more titles on the to-read shelf that circle around the same topics. I’m happy to report that I shouldn’t have worried.

Kristin Hannah turns the typical script completely upside down by telling the story of two sisters who were both heroes fighting the war in their own right. One, Isabelle, joins the Resistance and helps men escape to Free Zones, earning her the nickname of The Nightingale. She has to change her name, erase her identity, and learn very quickly who to trust. Along the way she falls in love with a mysterious man named Gäetan, and truly never knows if she will see him again.

The other, Vianne, the more traditional rule-follower, helps children escape Concentration Camps while protecting her family from German occupancy in her small village. She and her daughter practically starve; she is raped by a German soldier who stays with them while her husband is lost at war, but she never completely loses her will to do the right thing. Their father, drunk in his sorrows in Paris, wants nothing to do with either of them, or so he leads them to believe.

Hannah’s prose is beautiful and haunting. She paints her characters truthfully, imperfectly. The sisters have a complicated past that makes their relationship tense and without much mutual understanding until it is almost too late. This book explores the themes of family, sisterhood, love, war, and free will, in a way that never feels too forced. Through the detailed storytelling, you get a feel for a world that I am thankful I have never personally experienced.

I won’t reveal too much about the ending except to say that I was glad it didn’t tie together the loose ends too tightly. The reader gets some peace with the way the events unfolded, but the overarching message that war changes people and places in a way that can never be undone is clear. This book was based on a real-life story of a young Belgian woman who created escape routes out of Nazi-occupied France, and as Hannah says in an interview, it’s really meant to highlight the unsung heroes of the war. I would absolutely recommend it!

What have you been reading lately?