The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

“If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this: in love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are.”

5/5 stars.
Hardcover, 440 pages.
Read June 12, 2019 to June 17, 2019.

Well, well, well, isn’ it wonderful when the hype about a book turns out to be true? This novel had the perfect combination of things that I love in a good book. A historical-fiction plot based in WWII (one of my favourite settings), strong and dynamic female characters, great writing, and a few surprises in store at the end. If this book has been on your TBR pile, it’s time to go and pick it up!

It’s 1939 and the Nazis have started to encroach on France. Two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle, are about to face the war that’s coming. Having lost their mother at a young age and with an absent father who was dealing with his own demons from WW1, the two girls each felt abandoned in their youth. Vianne, the eldest, found love and married early but always relied on her husband for the guidance, rarely making decisions for herself. Isabelle never stopped feeling angry for being abandoned by her whole family. Rebellious at heart, she was kicked out of several girls schools before the start of the war and is rash and headstrong. The two of them couldn’t be more different yet each of them must face the war and the occupation of their country. Vianne must say goodbye to her husband, the only solid foundation she has ever had in her life, as he leaves to fight in the front. Isabelle is anxious to do something to assist in the war efforts, naive to the potential costs and sacrifices. Each sister grows and finds strength through horrible circumstances and rekindles a sisterly love and forgiveness for each other before the tragic end of the war.

The depth of characters in this story is what makes this book so exceptional. Vianne grows from a meek and passive young woman to finding her own voice even through immense tragedy and suffering. Isabelle joins the Resistance and makes an impact in the war yet when she returns home she finds that she is not the only one that has suffered and comes to understand her sister’s sacrifices, as well as their father’s.  The story is both moving and inspiring and there is a particular moment with the father that nearly brought me to tears.

This book has something for everyone and combine that with the great writing it’s no wonder it’s been so popular. Unless another book comes around before the new year, this book is the top contender for my favourite book of the year.

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

“A story lives transformed by a gesture not made or a word not spoken”

4/5 stars.
Paperback, 176 pages.
Read from May 7, 2019 to May 8, 2019.

Confession; This is my first read by Ian McEwan and I think that this novel was a great introduction to his writing. I look forward to adding a few more of his books to my TBR pile.

This is a deeply emotional novel of the marriage of a young couple in the early 1960s. Florence comes from a well-to-do family and is a brilliant violinist who hopes of pursuing a musician as a career. She is recently married to Edward, a historian, of whom she met by chance at university. The two of them maintain this image of a perfect relationship and are looking forward to the next step in their lives after marriage. The novel opens with the two of them on their honeymoon right after their wedding. While the world is slowly starting to emerge into the swinging sixties, Florence and Edward, are still generally conservative, meaning that they have yet to become sexually intimate. Edward is beyond excited to consummate their marriage but is extremely worried about his performance and is wracked with anxiety. Florence, on the other hand, is terrified. She has no desire to be intimate with anyone and has been frigid throughout their whole relationship. However, Florence’s behaviour is not created out of modesty or disgust as Florence has a secret trauma she cannot bring herself to deal with. The story is a slow burner with the climax (no pun intended) during the moment the two of them attempt to consummate their marriage. The couple’s lack of communication and utter embarrassment about the whole ordeal leads to tragic consequences for both of them.

As a reader, you want desperately to shake Florence and Edward and get them to actually discuss their feelings instead of hiding behind this facade that each of them has created. Florence and Edward’s story addresses human vulnerabilities and the extremes that we go to in order to maintain an appearance and not show our deepest selves and secrets, especially when it comes to sex. As a reader, you connect deeply with this newlywed couple as many of us have experienced similar issues with vulnerability and communication and you really want the best for them. Both Florence and Edward had an idea of what they thought might make them happy but their inability to communicate their fears resulted in their demise and their whole lives changed within an instant. You can almost feel the deep regret oozing from the pages by the end of the novel.

This is a moving novel on a difficult topic that the author masterfully executed. I would recommend this novel for anyone interested in literary fiction or stories about intimate relationships.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

“Love is the longing for the half of ourselves we have lost.”

4/5 stars.
Paperback, 314 pages.
Read from April 11, 2019 to April 17, 2019.

Readers of this book either love it or hate and I would say that both opinions would be valid. The book covers a large scope of history specific to Czechoslovakia with manipulative, provocative, and dynamic characters. The majority of the book is set in Prague, Czechoslovakia in the 1960s and 1970s and specifically during a time of political reform called the Prague Spring. Milan Kundera, the author, is of Czech origin but has lived in exile in France since 1971, where he became a naturalised citizen in 1981. Milan’s books were banned under the communist rule in Czechoslovakia and remained banned until the Velvet Revolution in 1989. Readers have speculated if any of the characters in this book and many of Milan’s others are in any way autobiographical, to which Milan responded in a 1985 interview with New York Times,

“No character in my novels is a self-portrait, nor are any of my characters the portrait of a living person. I don’t like disguised autobiographies. I hate writers’ indiscretions.”

The Unbearable Lightness of Being follows the lives of two men, two women, and one dog and how their lives intertwine during the years of political upheaval in Czechoslovakia. Tomas is a womanizing surgeon who marries the young and vulnerable Tereza, despite his inability (unwillingness) to be faithful. He claims to love Tereza more than anything but cannot give up seeing other women and battles his feelings for Tereza through the entire novel. Tomas even taunts her in her sleep by whispering in her ear his infidelities which causes Tereza to have horrendous and violent dreams about him with other women. Tereza is miserable and mad with jealousy but the two of them just can’t seem to be apart. The two of them have a delightful dog named Karenin who adores Tereza. One of Toma’s long-time lovers, Sabina has a similar nature to Tomas in how she treats her lovers but she has a turbulent history of her own that has made her that way. Franz is one of her lovers.  Each of the characters works their way through their turbulent relationships and personal faults as the country fills with the uproar of communism.

This prose of this book is undeniably poetic and beautiful giving it redeeming qualities long past its intriguing story, though not every reader has felt that way.

“The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man’s body.The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?”

Many find Milan’s writing dry and dull, while others, myself included, find it to be brilliant. As I opened this review, readers either love or hate this book because is like an invitation into this place of history and into the lives of these people and if you’re not interested in either from the beginning the book will do little for you. The depth at which Milan exposes his characters is rich and at times unnervingly honest. He discusses love and personal faults in a way most would not find romantic but at least poetic and realistic, giving the topics their own unique sense of beauty and awe. Toma’s is not good to Tereza with his womanising ways but as the backstory on each character grows you find fault with each character and see how they tend to create their own dynamic miseries making you empathise with them all on one way or another.

I would recommend this book for those that enjoy literary fiction, history and historical fiction, philosophical or poetic prose (especially if you enjoyed Proust) or honest and flawed characters.