Thursday, September 21, 2017

Comments on The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

This novel has real strengths and real drawbacks. It recounts suffering and resistance of two sisters, their father, and communities of associates, friends, and loved ones in France during the invasion and occupation by the Germans in WW II.  The action is mainly set in a small country town, but also in Paris and other rural parts of France.  It portrays movingly the grinding preservation and degradation of the French people as the war goes on with respect to practical matters like getting enough to eat, but also to persona feelings, like fearing for loved ones, or social and cultural loss, like the loss of faith in society.

The prose is generally clear and eloquent and every few pages are graced by tellingly beautiful and effective metaphors.

Three plot lines sometimes support and intensify one another and sometimes overlap and obscure one another. At the heart is the story of two sisters who respond to the early death of their mother and the emotional crippling of their father in very different ways.  One is rebellious, an actor-outer, whereas the other bargains everything for security.  Their father is himself the victim of the trauma of serving in the French army in WW I and the early death of their mother.

The second line of plot is the participation mainly of the rebellious sister in the resistance to the Germans, in particular her smuggling Allied airmen out of the country, which provides a lot of tense scenes.  The stay-at-home sister eventually, and somewhat out of character, becomes involved similarly in saving Jewish children.

The third line of plot is a frame story involving an ill, old woman in Seattle in the present day.  The reader's uncertainly about her relevance creates minimal tension.

The characterization in general is clear and moving. In the case of the sisters and their father, it reaches beyond being clear into being unremitting. Certainly every few pages from beginning to end the author informs us of how the sisters have responded differently to their different lack of parenting and how they feel about one another.

During about the time I read this book, I read, or rather audited, Arnold Bennett's novel The Old Wives Tale.  It too is about two sisters, one of whom is, in her 19th century English fashion, rebellious and adventurous, while he other is a stay-at-home.  It establishes the difference between these two sisters and their attitude towards one another and their difference in the first 50 pages of a very long novel, and after that simply lets us see how it plays out.  Hannah would've done well to follow similar strategy; we get tired of her rehashing these family differences.  The same thing applies to their relation to their father, which Bennett establishes and anchors its importance in the beginning of the novel.  It remains a live issue without our having to be told about it.  This economy leaves Bennett free to develop a whole world.

One of the virtues of The Nightingale is the portrayal two German officers who are stationed in a small town and become involved with the sisters.  The difference between the two officers is fully realized; one is a loyal German but a decent human being troubled by the war and his role, the other is a sadistic bastard.

I happen at the same time to be reading another relevant novel, Heinrich Böll's group portrait with lady, which very fully portrays the life of middle-class and other Germans during the war, and how it changed as the war approached its end, as Hannah portrays so well in France.  Böll's method of characterization is very much more complex than Hannah's.  Böll creates as a character an author like an investigative reporter who compares and contrasts the various accounts of the various characters by various other characters.  Just as we don't see eye to eye on one another, his characters do not see eye to eye on one another and he reports it.  The results are a very nuanced and multidimensional portrayal of the individuals and of their world.  Hannah's focus on the two sisters and certain aspects of their relationships seems narrow and repetitive by comparison.

The frame story of the ill, old woman in Seattle is a tease.  The reader comes to believe perhaps halfway through the novel that she one or the other of the sisters and the uncertainty is only resolved at the very end.  The whole frame story is unnecessary and unlikely. Hannah never explains how she got to Seattle many years after the main events of the novel.

The story sometimes falls into melodrama. For example, two lovers are reunited as one is about to die, á La Bohème.

So reading the novel was in part frustrating. I wish the author had stopped redwelling on the family relations, effectively established, which would have freed her cover some of the other complex cities of the German occupation of France, for example the role of those French who were perfectly happy to have the Germans arrive and save them from communism and Jews.  The frame story was simply an unnecessary and improbable obstruction.  But still is a moving book, with flash of wonderful writing and a moving portrayal of the suffering of war.