It is not often a book moves me to the point of transformation. Most books today are written for mass market interests rather, money makers. There is a rare occasion where a book is written for its own story and gets so far inside as you read as to become an unchangeable part of who you are, how you think, see things.
Kristen Hannah’s The Nightingale is the latter.
Written from a modern-day (1990s) elderly woman’s life, she has received an invitation to a reunion. A gathering of those who lived in the heart of the muck, the evil, terrifying, humbling, unearthiness of a mobilized, imprisoned small village in France during the second World War. Those who in some way helped the ones who were weaker than even they.
We all have our personalities. It is who we are when we are born. War changes all of this, Most of us today have lived blessed lives. We have experienced turmoils, terrorists and pockets of terrorism. But many or most of us have never experienced anything that consumed our entire lives to the point where our persons or personalities became simply persona. A costume we place upon ourselves so as to protect, hide, unrecognize who our true selves are.
This beautiful, terrible story is written from the raw vulnerabilities of those whose lives are completely displaced by the Third Reich. How they deal with less and less food, less and less mercantile, less and less furniture as that which they have known in their families perhaps for centuries is looted, less and less dignity. We all take so much for granted that, to read a book such as this is to be transported to a place beyond ourselves where we feel actual starvation, actual pain from brutal interrogation, actual humiliation of rape or the loss of dear families, friends until we have nothing but that which is at our very core, that which nothing and no one can take from us. It is almost too painful to read as we imagine it was for those who lived through it. And hard for me at times to remember that this book is a work of fiction. Because all that it describes within its pages were all too real during this war. As the sister of the narrator tells us after she has survived days and days of interrogation, then months in Ravensbruck of this plundering of all that she is except for her soul:
” ‘You know what I learned in the camps?
“Vianne looked at her. ‘What’?
“‘They couldn’t touch my heart. They couldn’t change who I am inside. My body … they broke that in the first days, but not my heart, V. …’ ”
Somehow, no matter how small we make ourselves our hearts where we hide our most precious, inmost selves never, ever completely disappear.
Quote from The Nightingale, by Hannah, Kristin, (c)2015, St. Martin’s Press, pg. 422-423. All rights reserved.