World War II

The Nightingale: How War Affects Women, How Women Affect A War

the nightingale

I started listening to Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale on audiobook and stopped several times this year. I would get through the first few chapters, as an older woman relays a tough childhood in France, then lose interest. I read a lot of books, I don’t really push through if they don’t capture my attention.

Recently, however, Audible named The Nightingale Audiobook of the Year, so I decided to give it another listen. And this isn’t a poor orphan story, but a war story. It’s a World War II story. And most importantly, it’s a lady story. A novel about how war affects women, and how women affect a war.

Author Hannah read about the roles of French women in the resistance during World War II, most notably Adrée de Jongh, who smuggled fallen airmen out of France through the Pyrenees mountains. She also read about women who quietly sheltered Jewish children or were forced to house German soldiers, and realized she had to tell these stories.

Her research helped her create The Nightingale‘s Vianne Mauriac, whose husband has left their small village to fight at the Front. While he’s gone, it is up to Vianne to tend to her small daughter, and find some way to survive with German soldiers who invade her home. Vianne’s younger sister, Isabelle, was rebellious before the war started. Once it begins, she is determined to join the resistance in any way she can.

Both these women will be tested in endless, exhausting ways. Isabelle flees from Paris in a gigantic, desperate swarm of refugees. Vianne’s best friend and next door neighbor is Jewish, and Vianne witnesses stricter and stricter restrictions placed upon her. I don’t often read historical fiction, but this book kept me going, equal parts horrified, intrigued, and entranced. I listened to this audiobook in the same time period that I watched Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, and it was Nazi overload. I would not recommend it. I’m now grateful I’m not living in Nazi-occupied France or Nazi-occupied America on the daily.

My main issue with the book, as powerful as it was, is the message that women after wartime don’t talk about their tragedies and triumphs. I guess you’ll have to read the book to know what I’m referring to here, but that a mother could keep such a large secret from her son seems odd to me. I’d be interested to know how everyone else felt about this message. I wonder if Hannah absorbed this from her research, that earlier generations were simply more stoic about doing what needed to be done? Anyways, check it out! Report back with your thoughts.

Also, movie rights for this one have been picked up so… that’s exciting!

The Nightingale on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Review – HHhH by Laurent Binet

Hhhh2

“When I watch the news, when I read the paper, when I meet people, when I hang out with friends and acquaintances, when I see how each of us struggles, as best we can, through life’s absurd meanderings, I think that the world is ridiculous, moving, and cruel. The same is true for this book: the story is cruel, the protagonists are moving, and I am ridiculous.” -Laurent Binet, HHhH

HHhH by Laurent Binet is oddly named but rightly so, as the Nazi tendency towards alliteration is just as uncanny as the rest of this historical metafiction novel. Sounding insane but purposeful, Laurent Binet struggles to tell the story of World War II’s Operation Anthropoid while also writing of his own shortcomings in research, distaste for other works of the time, and ultimately heartbreaking obsession with the exact details of a history lost to time.

Heydrich, aka "The Butcher"

Heydrich, aka “The Butcher”

The title stands for the Nazi phrase “Himmlers Hirn heiBt Heydrich,” translated to “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich.” HHhH‘s villain, and the focus of an assassination attempt in Operation Anthropoid, is Reinhard Heydreich. A mastermind looming over Nazi history, Heydrich founded the Nazi intelligence organization, supposedly acted as the brains behind Heinrich Himmler, leading member of the Nazi party, and put in motion events which led to the Holocaust.

Operation Anthropoid itself, with Heydrich at its center, seems epic and book-worthy. Two parachutists planned to tumble from the sky and land in occupied Prague, where Heydrich worked out of a castle. These two parachutists, they’ll hide out. They’ll plot, they’ll assassinate Heydrich. They’ll die themselves. They are prepared for this. When the plan is executed, of course, things go wrong, as life often does.

Where HHhH seems to lose me is in its argument: Binet complains about the inaccuracies of other historical fiction in his novel, but by doing this he distances himself further from the truth of the story he wants to tell. Binet comes across as arrogant and pompous, and perhaps arrogance is necessary to write yourself into your own story like this, but for the first part of the novel I’m not sure it works. Binet often breaks out of the story to tell the reader he doesn’t know how something happened–rather than putting the reader into the story further, this seems to detract attention from the historical event and put attention directly back to the writer himself. It seems if he truly loved the story of Operation Anthropoid, as he professes in the book, he may have told the story itself in his eloquent and powerful prose, with the extensive research he completed, to the best of his ability. Giving the story he so appreciated to his readers, without his constant commentary, seems to me a better way to honor the actual historical event.

I think the most powerful books are written by authors humble enough to lose their own voice entirely in their work, sacrificing themselves totally for the sake of the story. I understand that Binet tries to pave the way for something new here, but I’m just not sure this new form is true to his stated intentions.

The power of HHhH is its second, unfortunately brief, part, where Binet finally recounts the assassination attempt and its aftermath with a powerful, dream-like precision. Like watching the entire scene in slow motion, Binet recounts the story he has been waiting a whole book to tell, and the details are haunting, the sentences crafted in perfect time with the action as it unfolds. Binet shows his ability to write well here, and he tells the story in such a crisp gasp of breath that I consumed this part quickly, wanting more. Ironically, this more traditional historical fiction, with its speculation and imprecision, is where Binet shines and the history itself seems to leap off the page.

HHhH on Amazon.com/Indiebound.org

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