The Postmistress - Sarah Blake

The Postmistress - Sarah BlakeLondon, 1940. While bombs fall over streets, monuments, and shelters, American radio reporter Frankie Bard is in the thick of it all: the nightly raids, the fear, the neighbours who suddenly, from one day to the next, aren't there anymore. Her reports make it all the way back to her native America, to a small Cape Cod town where people struggle with grasping the reality of war. One of her listeners, Emma, is a lonely doctor's wife. Another one, Iris, is the postmaster (never -mistress!) of their small town. While the Second World War lurches closer, their lives are interwoven - and will never be the same again...

Okay. Before I start telling you what I liked about The Postmistress - and there is plenty to like, rest assured - I just have to comment on how happy Sarah Blake made me by not only naming the doctor's wife Emma, but also choosing to introduce her as a reader of novels (the first scene featuring Emma finds her reading Anna Karenina). Admittedly, I am a geek, but I do love it when authors, without becoming too clever or full of themselves in a postmodern "wink, wink, nudge, nudge" sort of way, throw in a couple of allusions to literary classics. The classic Blake refers to is, of course, Flaubert's Madame Bovary, but you already knew that, right...?

With or without literary allusions, "The Postmistress" is an utterly absorbing read; the kind of book that makes you want to curl up in bed and forget all about time, place, and everyday life. I must confess I shed a tear or two in the process of reading, and I am so sorry that I wasn't able to make it to the book club discussion at the Stockholm store, because this is truly a novel meant for sharing with others.

Other things I liked with The Postmistress (please note that this is not a complete list):

  1. The opening sentence "it began, as it often does, with a woman putting her ducks in a row". And no, the ducks are not literal ducks (that might actually have made it even more awesome). 
  2. The way Sarah Blake manages to connect all the different places and people without, as is often the case with multilayered novels, putting more effort into one of them. Whether her characters are in the US or in Europe, at a small town post office or in a bomb shelter, the language is always pitch perfect, the there-ness - I suppose "presence" would do as nicely - total. 
  3. The ending (which made me cry). 
  4. All of it, really (except for a particularly detailed depiction of child birth going horribly wrong. I just can't read about the stuff anymore, not that it was ever a favourite topic of mine).

In a lucky turn of events, I stumbled across another novel by Sarah Blake, Grange House, in the clustered basement I like to call my very own personal library. Some people would call that a clear sign of (book) shopaholism as I had evidently bought the book, then promptly put it on the shelf and forgot all about it. Me, though? I'd go with serendipity. Thus, my newfound friendship with Sarah Blake continues! Grange House ought to turn our friendship into a full-on love affair, seeing how it is a Gothic ghost story set in 19th century Maine... I'll keep you posted! In the meantime, I'll leave you with a list of a few of my favourite WW2 novels. In all fairness, I suppose what unites them beyond the obvious - they all, one way or another, deal with Great Britain in the 1940's - is the fact that they are all great stories. You can never get too much of those.

Helena's top 5 of the month: Novels set in war-time Britain

The Night Watch - Sarah Waters
The Night Watch - Sarah Waters 
Arguably Waters' finest moment to date, this exquisitely written and beautifully paced novel tells the story of four Londoners in the 1940's. Its cast will haunt you long after you've finished the last page.  
The Guernsay Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society - Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows The Guernsay Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society - Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Impossible title, lovely book. I never knew the concepts "feelgood novel" and "war story" could go together, but here you have proof. A warm, cosy, best friend type of read. 
The Report - Jessica Francis Kane The Report - Jessica Francis Kane
Kane's much-acclaimed novel deals with the aftermaths of the 1943 Bethnal Green catastrophe, where 173 suffocated to death in the newly built Bethnal Green tube station. 
Goodnight, Mister Tom - Michelle Magorian Goodnight, Mister Tom - Michelle Magorian 
My very first encounter with World War II. An unforgettable, deeply moving novel that I look forward to introducing to my children when they are old enough.
The Outcast - Sadie Jones The Outcast - Sadie Jones

Granted, this one is a bit of a stretch as it is set in post-WW2 Britain. However, the memory of war still lingers in the minds and hearts of its characters and, frankly, this is too good a read not to mention (even though I do feel the theme cracking a wee bit..). Something about the overall tone made me think of Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road: middle-class lives gone to waste in a suburban surrounding so occupied with keeping up appearances that happiness is never an option... Jones' second novel, Small Wars, takes place in 1950's Cyprus and is just as captivating. Can't wait for her third one!

Sara Blake in the bookshop