I picked this book up in the local bookshop thinking it would make good holiday reading. It did, but it’s not exactly the sort of light reading one takes along to read on the beach. The tale it tells of France under German occupation, the ‘exodus’ of thousands of Parisians from the capital, the division of France into an occupied zone and a supposedly ‘free’ zone under the Vichy government has been told many times, and often in vivid terms (vide Irene Nemirovsky’s ‘Suite Francaise’), but in ‘The Nightingale’ we find ourselves face-to-face with the harsh realities of the situation on an almost personal basis.
In ‘The Nightingale’ we come to know two sisters who have grown up in different environments and made different lives for themselves. Vianne, the elder of the two, has a husband and a child and lives a peaceful life in rural France. Her rebellious younger sister, Isabelle, has run away from countless boarding schools and it is while she is in Paris, having been expelled from the latest in the series, that the Germans invade France, and its inhabitants set out on the long trek to the south and centre of the country. While trying to get to her sister’s home in central France Isabelle meets Gaetan, a young man who helps her and with whom she falls in love.
But the events that take place in occupied France prevent them from forming a permanent relationship and it is initially as a courier for the Resistance and later in other, more dangerous, capacities, that Isabelle is occupied during the war years. Without wanting to give too much away, I will limit myself to saying that all the horrors of the war, the billeting of German soldiers in French homes, the barbarity of the Nazis’ treatment of civilians and military persons alike, the need to help downed Allied airmen escape to safety across the Pyrenees, the privations and denial of basic commodities to the local population are described in riveting – and sometimes harrowing – detail. Anyone who has read Caroline Moorhead’s book ‘A Train in Winter’ will not be surprised by the events described in the book, even though they still arouse horror and distress, especially in relation to characters fpr whom we have learned to care.
The fate of the Jews of France is also described in considerable detail, as seen through the eyes of the general population, and it is their reactions to these events that both thrill and sadden the reader. The book focuses to a great extent on the role played by women in enduring and combatting the occupation of France, and its conclusion, which recounts the belated recognition by the French authorities of their contribution, serves to provide some solace for the reader’s aching heart.