Kristin Hannah’s novel “The Nightingale” tells the story of two sisters who take different paths, both fraught with danger, during the Nazi occupation of France. Hannah appears in February at several area locations, including Feb. 24 at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park.
by Kristin Hannah
St. Martin’s Press, 438 pp., $27.99
The title may leave you wondering whether this book might be about ornithology, or singing, or perhaps a sequel to “The Goldfinch.” It is none of these. Bainbridge Island novelist Kristin Hannah has based her newest novel in war-torn France during World War II, when a brave and rebellious young woman (code name: Nightingale) risks everything to smuggle downed Allied airmen through a mountainous route out of France to Spain.
“The Nightingale” is the story of Isabelle, her sister Viann and their Loire-district family in the grim era of the Occupation. The two sisters are quite different: Dutiful Viann struggles to provide for her family when she loses her teaching job. Her serviceman husband has disappeared into a prisoner-of-war camp. Of Viann’s beautiful and reckless sister, Hannah writes: “Isabelle had always simply reacted in her life. Someone left her behind; she followed. Someone told her she couldn’t do something; she did it. Every barrier she turned into a gate.”
Sizable barriers face Isabelle in her work for the French Resistance, particularly when she volunteers to lead trapped Allied airmen and other dissidents over the Pyrenees on foot, through snowy mountains and past enemy patrols. Meanwhile, back at home, the responsible Viann — through whose viewpoint much of the story is told — endures terrible privations, as well as the dangerous attentions of SS officers who are billeted in her house. Viann’s Jewish friends are dragged off to Auschwitz, in heart-rending scenes of parents relinquishing their adored children. Lovers and spouses endure terrible uncertainties and absences. Everyone is freezing and starving, to the point that suggestible readers may find themselves groping for an extra sweater and sneaking into the kitchen for a piece of chocolate.
The author of “The Nightingale” will appear at these area locations:
• At 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 24, at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park; free (206-366-3333 or ).
•At 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 26, on The Chuckanut Radio Hour at the Crystal Ballroom at the Leopold, 1224 Cornwall Ave., Bellingham; free. For information call Village Books at 360-671-2626 or go to villagebooks.com.
• At 7 p.m. March 6 at Liberty Bay Books in Poulsbo; free (360-779-5909 or libertybaybooks.com).
At the center of the book are some big questions: What would you do to survive? What would you sacrifice in order to save your children? What — and whom — would you risk in order to save the lives of people you had never met before? And how do you go on when the unthinkable happens?
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Author Hannah has published 21 books, many of them best-sellers. She is no stranger to the depiction of chilly family relationships, and there are many of them in this story: first, the newly widowed father who had dropped off young daughters Viann and Isabelle “like soiled laundry,” leaving them with an uncaring stranger. Viann, then 14 to Isabelle’s 4, soon becomes pregnant by her future husband, and then miscarries; in her grief and self-absorption, Viann neglects little Isabelle, who is sent off to boarding school. It is no surprise that guilt and resentment brew between the sisters as adults; they both have their share of regrets, though they also have a shared love that shines, even through the terrible events of the novel.
“The Nightingale” is framed as the reminiscence of one of the sisters — we don’t initially know which one — who is mortally ill in 1995, living in Oregon and mulling over a trunk of old memorabilia. She is galvanized by an invitation to a reunion in France more than five decades after the main events of the novel. The conclusion brings the action full circle for a moving and meaningful resolution.