Favourite Books of 2016: Helena Chung chooses ‘The Nightingale’ by Kristin Hannah

By Helena Chung

As Virginia Woolf once said, war is a man’s game. For many novels set against the background of WWII, the role of men are highly emphasised, while the roles of women are minimized to marginal figures of little importance. Popular mainstream war movies such as Saving Private Ryan, and more recently Hacksaw Ridge only further reinforce such impressions. Moreover, it is hard to attract mass readers with journalistic non-fiction, such as the works of Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich, despite its in-depth research, and this is where The Nightingale comes in.

I choose Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale as my favourite book of the year, for despite its predictable plot and slightly cliche characterisation, Hannah manages to pull off a balanced combination of fearless courage and feminine sentiment that readers are unable to put down. This is no small feat considering how the love-hate relationship between two sisters with different if not opposite personalities has been the subject of way too many historical novels, with a scandalous romance thrown in to occasionally increase the drama (who can deny that reading The Other Boleyn Girl is such guilty pleasure). To be fair, The Nightingale did spend a significant portion portraying the different kinds of love experienced by the mature Vianne and the hot-blooded Isabelle. However, the male characters are never the focus of the plot, as the main function of the sisters’ romantic relationships is to reflect how they change as the war forces women to make unimaginable choices in order to protect the ones they love and the beliefs they will die defending.

Love and courage, these are the two words that form the basis of The Nightingale. They may sound old-fashioned, but as the story develops, readers really breath and feel with the sisters as they deal with threats and hardships in their respective battlefields. Younger readers will probably find Isabelle’s heart-stopping adventures as an underground spy for the French Resistance more exciting, while older readers who are mothers themselves will connect to Vianne more as she is a more dimensional character undergoing changes throughout the novel. Here, the differences between the sisters are used cleverly by Hannah to enhance the main theme of the novel. For although Isabelle appears to be the more aggressive fighter starting from the beginning while Vianne’s passive attitude does make readers get mad at her, it is Vianne’s gradual transformation from a silent civilian to one who risks her life to save Jewish children that touches readers’ hearts. Through Hannah’s writing, the sisters feel like real human beings of blood and flesh that we readers can just reach out and touch. They may not be like their husbands and lovers who enlist in the army, but sometimes it takes more courage to endure and survive under the enemy’s occupation, and it is in The Nightingale that the complexity and beauty of human nature in extreme circumstances is fully depicted.

Lastly, through this reccomendation of The Nightingale, I would like to raise the issue of lack of female voice in the creative industry (and many others as well). As I have mentioned above, Hacksaw Ridge is an amazing film that pays tribute to the miracles of humanity in wartime. However, there should be more works depicting as dimensional female heroes whose stories are often forgotten and neglected, and hopefully the coming film adaptation of The Nightingale (which will be directed by Game of Thrones’ Michelle MacLaren) will serve as an encouraging example for more diversive works with women playing important roles.

Image: Pan Macmillan; Faye Chua

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