Marina Kemp’s Nightingale is the second of the five titles shortlisted for the Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year award I’ve chosen to review, both of which I’d planned to read before the judges picked them. In contrast to Naoise Dolan’s sharp, urban Exciting Times peopled with transients, Nightingale takes its time exploring a rural community in France where ideas are deeply entrenched and strangers viewed with suspicion.
In this light, only at this point of the day, the silver of the olive leaves was a dark grey – just as only in the searing heat of summer could they appear quite white
Marguerite has come to Saint-Sulpice to nurse Jérôme who is slowly dying in the once-grand house where his sons were brought up. She’s met by the unwelcoming Brigitte, appointed to oversee arrangements at Rossignol. Plain and uneducated, Brigitte is married to handsome, quietly cultured Henri, an odd match made very young. Together they share the running of the Henri’s beloved family farm but little else. Marguerite becomes accustomed to the irascible Jérôme, free with his insults and parsimonious with his praise. She’s lonely but unresponsive to the overtures made by Suki, the Iranian woman who has failed to overcome the villagers’ suspicions despite living in Saint-Sulpice for nearly two decades. When Jérôme’s three sons visit for the first time in years, Marguerite finds herself drawn into their evenings spent joshing and competing but it’s Henri, once his sons’ friend, who Jérôme respects. As the summer wears on, Jérôme softens towards Marguerite but it becomes clear that both she and Henri have secrets whose disclosure may ruin their lives.
But they had been like two children, she thought, like children in Neverland, in some ridiculous made-up world. She of all people knew that world didn’t exist; she’d known it all along
Kemp’s novel switches perspectives between Marguerite and Henri, sketching in their pasts as it slowly builds towards the revelations I’ve avoided making in that synopsis. It’s a story that unfolds luxuriously, full of gorgeous descriptions of the French summer, then brings its readers up short with shocks here and there. Kemp depicts a village riven with gossip, beset with suspicion and prejudice, where difference is viewed sideways rather than embraced. Equally, Jérôme’s thoroughly Parisian sons are characterised as either pleased with themselves or dissolute. Against this backdrop, Kemp explores hidden hurt and the damage it does through both Marguerite and Henri. I liked, rather than loved, this absorbing novel which took me on a welcome visit to France although Saint-Sulpice is a place I think I’d rather pass through than linger for long.
If you want to know which of the five shortlisted titles the shadow judges plumped for, all will be revealed tomorrow but you’ll have to wait another week to hear the judges’ verdict.
4th Estate: London 9780008326463 422 pages Hardback