The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

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It was the comparisons to All the Light We Cannot See that attracted me to The Nightingale. Though both novels are set during WW2 the similarities for me stopped there. All the Light is a magical novel electric with beautiful resounding prose and refined artistry; The Nightingale is a novel motored essentially by cliché and exaggeration.

Clichéd writing isn’t just resorting continually to stock phrases (though Hannah does this a lot); it’s also straining for tension through exaggeration to the point where dramatic tension degenerates into melodrama. No surprise that clichéd phrases often perform a task of exaggeration. – “She was scared to death.” “She couldn’t believe her eyes.”

The Nightingale reads like YA fantasy fiction. Everything is wildly exaggerated so that WW2 is perceived as a kind of post nuclear holocaust world where this one event utterly eclipses the world we live in. The perspective of the novel is one of hindsight as if all the characters are experiencing not the daily hardships of the war but the totality of all WW2’s horrors. It’s like her research consisted of jotting down every single horror story and deprivation and shoe-horning them all into her story.  It’s mostly set in a small town in the middle of France yet this small town is “swarming” with German soldiers, Gestapo, SS, Jews, bomb damage as if the entire war is centred there (I was only surprised Hitler and Eva Braun didn’t have a holiday home there as well). The two main characters are loaded with the ordeals & accomplishments of an entire circuit of resistance members. Isabelle is every SOE heroine rolled into one and Vianne is a kind of female Schindler.

Plausibility is often sacrificed to “thrills and spills”. In the space of three pages a Jewish woman is told the Nazis will arrive at her house the next morning. Three paragraphs later – or two hours later – she has magically acquired false identity papers. Three paragraphs later she is about to cross through a peaceful checkpoint when inexplicably the German guard begins machine gunning everyone as if he got bored just checking papers. He even takes the trouble to shoot the woman’s nine year old child in the back. This is all passed off without explanation as if it were a normal wartime incident.

The big surprise though is that the ending is genuinely moving and really well managed. Hence all the gushing reviews. Basically to enjoy this you need to anaesthetize your critical faculties. That done I guess there’s enjoyment to be had because Hannah is a decent storyteller and is good at developing human relationships. No doubt it’ll soon be a Hollywood film.

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2 thoughts on “The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

  1. Totally agree, I was astonished to see the ratings on Goodreads for this one, and then to be voted Best in Historical Fiction! The ending really irritated me. It beggars belief that the Red Cross hospitals in Paris who were caring for prisoners liberated from German concentration camps would discharge someone as weak and ill as Isabelle, someone with typhus, pneumonia or worse, after just one week. And then send her, coughing blood and racked with fever, on a train journey on her own into the care of her sister and the local doctor who treats her with broth and aspirin.

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