Friday, January 7, 2011

Review: The Postmistress by Sarah Blake

Reviewed by Lucia.

Published: 2010

It's about: The story interweaves the lives of three American women experiencing the effects of World War Two from different angles. Frankie, a young radio reporter, interviews strangers and broadcasts stories of their personal horrors from London during the Blitz. Her attempts to deliver the truth to those back in America, reaches the ears of Emma, a doctor's wife, both desperate and fearful for news of her husband, and Iris, the Cape Cod postmistress. The Postmistress defines the importance of truth and love in wartime, the damage inflicted by looking the other way, and what we do to protect others.

I thought: Blake's novel was not much how I thought it would be like. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that the blurb was quite misleading. I expected a twist on the typical love-in-wartime thread, and this book is far from it. The aspect which struck me most about the text was how relative its message is today, was for its setting, would have been two hundred years ago and will be for as long as there are things wrong in the world. I found the novel thought provoking in ways which were simultaneously infuriating and heartbreaking.

The prose is effortless and well constructed. I found Blake's style beautiful in a manner which supported the characters and the subject matter. Her language is thoroughly original, honest, at times taught, and radiating with life from the time it is depicting. It is not overwritten or riddled with unnecessary metaphors (a feature which so irritates me, and which can be frequently found in war fiction), but seamless and orderly (this is the best word I can find to describe Blake's language, and I mean it well although I've never used it in this context before).

The fact that the author created characters which I could empathize with, I found impressive. I know that I, and many others, are often powerless to diminish the effects of the overwhelming number of wrongs in the world, no matter how many efforts are made to do so, and it seems that we are only chipping away a fraction of what must be completely eradicated, or ideally, ought not to exist in the first place. This is the heart of Blake's unsettling theme. Despite being nineteen years old and privileged, I felt engaged, and sometimes thrilled, by the way the author draws the reader closer to the lives of her characters.

Verdict: I know that this will not be everyone's cup of tea. My fear is that readers may simply see what they want to, or might not read thoroughly enough. But I would put it one the shelf.

Reading Recommendations: I would recommend perhaps reading a little background on Edward Murrow, as the author assumes knowledge of some of his work in London during this period. In addition, the story really came together for me when I read Blake's chapter 'The Story Behind the Story,' which is presented at the back of the novel, and which I suggest reading after you have finished the book.

Warnings: None.

Favorite excerpts: If there was a place on earth in which God walked, it was the workroom of any post office in the United States of America. Here was the thick chaos of humanity rendered into order. Here was a box for every family in the town. Letters, bills, newspapers, catalogs, packages might be sent forth from anywhere in the world, shipped and steamed across water and land, withstanding winds and time, to journey ever forward toward this single, small, and well-marked destination. Here was no Babel. Here, the tangled lines of people's lives unknotted, and the separate tones of voices set down upon a page were let to breach the distance. Hand over hand the thoughts were passed. And hers was the hand at the end.

What I'm reading next: The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund De Waal.