Friday, 5 August 2011

The Postmistress by Sarah Blake

GENRE: war fiction/women's fiction/drama

It is 1940, and bombs fall nightly on London. In the thick of the chaos is young American radio reporter Frankie Bard. She huddles close to terrified strangers in underground shelters, and later broadcasts stories about survivors in rubble-strewn streets. But for her listeners, the war is far from home. Listening to Frankie are Iris James, a Cape Cod postmistress, and Emma Fitch, a doctor's wife. Iris hears the winds stirring and knows that soon the letters she delivers will bear messages of hope or tragedy. Emma is desperate for news of London, where her husband is working - she counts the days until his return. But one night in London the fates of all three women entwine when Frankie finds a letter - a letter she vows to deliver . . .

The Postmistress is a novel about ordinary people trying to cope with the tragedies of war. At the centre of the story are three women: Frankie Bard, a young American radio reporter in the Blitz in London, speaking to her listeners about every-day drama that she encounters in a war-plagued London; Iris James, a proud-to-be postmistress of Cape Cod, Massachussets, miles away from the war, yet close to it through the letters that contain it in words; and Emma Fitch, the young wife of a doctor, hurting because her husband is in the middle of danger in London, yearning to have him back home.

The novel does not focus on the WW2 in general, but on the personal drama of ordinary people suffering through it. This is a character-driven story, showing that tragedies did not happen only on the battlefields, but also in comfortable homes of women awaiting the return of their husbands, or the dreaded news that war has hit America, too. The story is slow-paced, and as such it allows the reader to savour the drama, the hurt, the expectations, the hope, the yearning. The plot begins to thicken when fate begins to draw the three women – Frankie, Iris and Emma – together and when two of the women decide to take matters into their own hands: Iris intends to keep a letter a secret to spare a friend the pain of loss, and Frankie intends quite the oppposite.

The characters are very well developed. They are rounded and appear very real, as if you could meet them on the street. They made me feel and hope for them. Especially the character of Emma Fitch is very sympathetic and, in my opinion, drives the story forward. In this respect, I think the problem of this novel is its title. It does not fit the whole frame of the story and is therefore quite inappropriate. I confess, I cannot think of a better title, but if I were to title this novel, The Postmistress would definitely not be my choice, as it is a very deceiving title, almost fooling the reader about the directions this story takes. The way the story evolved came as a surprise to me, as I had been expecting something entirely different. Fortunately, my disappointment died out soon and was replaced by satisfaction – the novel really is well written.

The sense of time and place is very vivid and clearly outlined. The reader can easily imagine London in the time of the second great war, or the peaceful Cape Cod on the other side of the Atlantic. It is also easy to picture the characters and their activities: the precise way in which Iris sorts the letters that must be deliever to their destinations; the despair that accompanies Frankie on her journey through Europe, as she witnesses death, injustice and an end to what she saw as hope; Emma's lost and worried face as she enters Cape Cod's post office every day, waiting for news of her husband.

There is nothing epic about this story, no great adventures or anything of the sort. It is all very emotional and psychological, and I personally love stories that focus on these things. The ending fits. I was only confused by Frankie's motives and decisions. I have my own theories, but I am not entirely sure. Still, the story as a whole is wonderful and ends in a suitable way. Perhaps Iris's life is hit by tragedy that I would have chosen not to happen, as with all the sorrow already present, I didn't feel it was necessary to burden Iris's life with tragedy, too.

This is a novel for those who like to read about history, war and ordinary people. I recommend it.



Unknown said...

This sounds really great. I like stories that are more character driven too. I like getting to really know them. Next time I'm in the mood for a WW2 story, I'll borrow this from the library.

Jo K said...

This is an angle on WW II I haven't yet read, but seems very interesting - I will have to pick this up. The characters are appealing and it would be nice to read about a more personal take on the war. Great review!

Kelly said...

I've been wanting to read this book for quite a while now. It looks really good :)

The Insouciant Sophisticate said...

From what I had read about this, the title didn't seem to fit although it can be hard to come up with a good title to capture a book. Your review makes this sound pretty interesting; maybe I will give it a chance.

Blodeuedd said...

Great review, yes I want to read it :) Luckily for me I have seen it at the library..I think. better check

Linda said...

I have this on my tbr list. Great review!

Carrie said...

I recently finished this book and will be reviewing it soon. I was so disappointed in this novel!!! Glad you enjoyed it, though.