In Death of a Nightingale by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis, the dazzling song of a hungry little girl precipitates nearly a century of deception and bloodshed.
The story jumps back and forth between females fighting for life in two time periods. Young sisters Oxana and Olga endure constant hunger and mortality in Stalin’s Ukraine in the 1930s. Oxana becomes a symbol of the Communist machine and the powerlessness of the people. In modern-day Copenhagen, Natasha Doroshenko realizes that her mission to free herself and especially her chronically afflicted daughter from the continuing oppression of the Ukraine bureaucracy has failed. A widow accused of murdering two men, Natasha becomes a fugitive in the land that she thought would be her salvation.
Death of a Nightingale passed my most important test for the thriller genre. I was unable to put it down. I finished all 368 pages in just two days – neglecting tasks I probably should have been doing in favor of finding out what happened.
The book opens with a fairytale told by a mysterious survivor. These first few pages served to completely hook me into the rest of the book. I was haunted by the imagery at the beginning until the very end. By simplifying elements of the story into the universal language of fairytale, I immediately got the message that this story was as much about human nature as it was about the settings of Holland and Ukraine that are so foreign to me as an American reader.
You’d be hard pressed to find a setting that I know less about than Ukraine in the 1930s. It is a testament to the two authors that I was there with them during the Holomodor, the great famine caused when Stalin forced Ukraine farmers into collectivization. I related to the two little girls in their waking nightmares and reveled in what these hardships bent them into.
The delight of Death of a Nightingale is the revelation that we as women are made up of all of our experiences — most of which are out of our control. We will ultimately face a choice to do or say something profoundly evil.
I love nothing more than a wicked witch and this story has a brilliant one. But her identity could’ve landed on any of the protagonists. All of them are female. All of them become desperate to survive or to save those they love. And their drive propels the story and makes it compelling.
There were a few plot elements I still had questions about at the end of the book. But overall, I was satisfied with the ending. It’s stayed with me for several days now and though neither the Ukraine or Copenhagen were shown in a light that makes me want to vacation there, I would revisit them as told through the voices of the characters.
By the way, Death of a Nightingale is the third book in the Nina Borg series. I haven’t read the other two books and I didn’t feel handicapped by that fact. The story stands on its own.
Death of a Nightingale tells a grim story that chills to the bone. It’s a perfect fireside read for those that enjoy a thriller that incorporates historical fiction and those pondering the making and meaning of evil.
You can order Death of a Nightingale through Amazon here.
*I received this book from the publisher, but was under no obligation to post a good review.