When I first saw the shortlist for the Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award, I thought that Nightingale by Marina Kemp sounded like the closest to what we might think of as a traditional novel, and that has certainly proven to be the case now that I’ve read it. I don’t say that in any disparaging way: in fact, I’ve often wished that some so-called auto-fictions or experimental novels had erred on the side of tradition and a coherent narrative and overarching structure.
From the beautiful cover, to the blurb promising dysfunctional families, secrets and lies, to the setting in the sleepy south-west of France, it has all the hallmarks of the perfect summer holiday read. It is the story of Marguerite, a young Parisian raised in a well-to-do family, who has trained as a palliative nurse and who has been hired to look after grumpy, wealthy Jérôme Lanvier, once the most powerful and feared men in the village. Marguerite’s past and the reason why she might be working in such an ‘unprestigious’ job become a source of speculation and gossip in the village. Yet the patient and the nurse very slowly, very cautiously develop some sort of understanding and even a grudging respect.
However much Marguerite may wish to keep to herself, she cannot help but become involved with some of the villagers: bolshy Brigitte who has been tasked with checking up on Jérôme’s nursing companions; her gentle farmer husband Henri; the old man’s sons who make a brief appearance from their successful Parisian careers and seem to care more about the inheritance than about their father; and Suki, whose family fled from Iran, and who feels the eternal outsider in a community of ‘mediocrities’.
So we have an intriguing cast of characters, and we have hints (actually quite broad hints – more like public road signs) of past pain and secrets that certain of the characters would do anything to protect. We also have trips to the boulangerie, drinking wine among the olive groves and picking ripe tomatoes on the vine. We have careful observation of gestures and dialogue, a gradual reveal of motivations and tensions, good pacing generally. There are also passages of lyrical, yearning intensity that are simply beautifully written. Yet, overall, the book failed to win me entirely over.
Firstly, despite all of its cultural references, I did not feel fully immersed in a stifling French village atmosphere with sinister overtones, as described so accurately by French authors such as Sylvie Granotier, Sébastien Japrisot or Pascal Garnier. Nor did it have the almost overwhelming charm and specificity of the novels of Joanne Harris or Martin Walker’s Bruno Chief of Police series. Yet Marina Kemp is one of a long line of English-speaking authors to choose to set her novel in France, so I have no quarrel with that.
Secondly, there were quite a few instances when the author was not merely content to show us an emotion or interaction between her characters, but she also had to tell it. It felt like everything had to be underlined, emphasised, dwelled upon, to make sure that we don’t miss it as a reader. In French novels and films, so much is left unsaid, so much is merely implied, which is why the contrast struck me all the more forcibly. Finally, some of the secrets were dealt with in a rather melodramatic fashion which might have made more sense if the book had been set a few decades ago.
Having made all of the critical remarks above, I have to admit that I read the book in just a couple of days and found it an enjoyable experience. However, I don’t think it will be the most memorable book from the shortlist for me.