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Monday, 21 February 2011

Book Review: The Postmistress by Sarah Blake

First of all, let me say that I don't think the Richard & Judy recommendation sticker on any book is supposed to be a deterrent. However, it certainly made me think twice before I picked up the nice book with the intriguing cover of a woman with a picture of a smoky London in the background. I read the blurb, dithered a bit, read the first few pages, dithered a bit more, then finally bought it. No matter how good Richard & Judy seemed to think it was, I wanted to give it a go independently.

The plot revolves around three women. Frankie, an American journalist, is reporting on the London air raids to the people back home. On the other side of the Atlantic are postmistress, Iris, and newly married couple, Emma and Will Fitch. Through circumstance, Dr Fitch leaves to help the wounded in London. While there, he encounters Frankie and sets in motion a chain of events which see the book to its conclusion.

Generally, the book is an easy read in the sense that it flows reasonably well. If I had one criticism of structure, it would be that sometimes it takes a few seconds for you to realise whose viewpoint you've moved to. At one point, for example, a viewpoint character was watching two other people across a room and it disorientated me until I realised where I was. However, when juggling three primary viewpoints, plus several others, slight confusion is understandable at times.

Sarah Blake portrays the horror of the nightly air raids skilfully. It would be very easy for the descriptions to fall into melodrama, but they don't. One of the most poignant images in the book is Frankie returning with a young boy to find their homes in ruins; where Frankie's friend and the boy's mother had been when the bomb hit. It's a quiet scene, all the more touching for the lack of movement around it.

Later, when Frankie embarks on a rail journey around Europe, meeting displaced and frightened Jews along the way, the snapshots of life are well-drawn, portraying the reality of encountering someone on a platform and never knowing the end of their story. As a journalist, Frankie struggles with the difference between reporting and seeing - her boss has told her in the past that facts are facts, and anything else is irrelevant.

Frankie arrives in Cape Cod, the home of the Fitches and Iris James, the postmistress. She has a letter to deliver but, as is made clear in the prologue, it's one she doesn't hand over. The tension in the novel doesn't come from whether she will pass along the contents of the letter but why she decides not to. In that sense, it isn't a novel of high drama. If anything, it's an extended piece of observation which leaves the reader vaguely unsettled. WWII feels so long ago for those of us who didn't live through it, but this book brings it back in vivid detail.

Every secondary character Blake introduces has a function, whether to demonstrate a particularly mentality or show the helplessness of a particular situation. One poignant character is that of Otto, an Austrian refugee living in Cape Cod. He's mentioned throughout the narrative with vague suspicion by the other characters. However, his ultimate story is as natural as it is heartbreaking.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book. Perversely, despite the sparse plot and observational nature, there seemed to be a lot going on. This was mainly due to the secondary characters passing through and Frankie's reactions to them. Character-wise, perhaps the book suffered from having too many primary characters. However, they all serve a purpose, and the piece would feel less real if they weren't included.

I'd urge anyone to read The Postmistress. I guarantee that it'll take your mind away from any of your own troubles for quite some time.


Shelley said...

I don't know who Richard and Judy are, but that's how I feel when I see an Oprah sticker on a book. But sometimes, like your experience here, it ends up being okay.

CharmedLassie said...

I wouldn't call them Britain's answer to Oprah (that's an insult all round) but the principle's the same. They've become the UK's best tool for book-selling.