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The Postmistress - Sarah Blake

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3 Reviews

Genre: Fiction / Author: Sarah Blake / 336 pages / Book published 2011-01-06 by Penguin

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    3 Reviews
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      30.01.2013 02:04
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      Contemporary Historical Fiction - That is 'Fiction'.

      Author: Sarah Blake

      The three entwined characters are Frankie (the travel journalist) Emma (the newly wed to a doctor whom absconded to aid casualties of the Blitz); and Iris, (the middle aged postmaster).

      - - - -

      The Postmistress will be known as one of the bravest forms of contemporary scripts of the early twenty first century, poetic in description and it all derived by a fleeting moment of inspiration, a vision, from a post office. Blake literary sat on her contemporary concept for eight years, a dedication that has the potential to drown lesser authors. Whereby research into the unspoken world of lost war narratives, and morality - Blake suitably hits on the moral notes as if conducting a 'symphony of sympathy' not of the teary kind but of the moral kind - 'note by note, brings a lump to the throat' - Blake though is no Nicholas Sparks thank goodness, her quest is to not open the tear-duct flood-gates. Her prose is refreshingly contemporary; unlike the archaic romanticism Sparks manufactures, whom enrols in clichés as if his livelihood depended on it - oh it does, sorry - Blake instead captured narratives from a forgotten era about a subject matter no-one spoke of at length nor heard of during 1940 - 41, when conflict hit Europe in the shape of the Nazis' - Blake's nurtured approach to narratives at this calamitous period is typically American and endearing. I could imagine dear Sarah wrestling with the mountains of forgotten converse, that redefined women's lifestyles, that created trepidation, thwarted dreams, worse still, the American dream. The envelope masked the words, the words manifested into personal treasures - the precious wordage etched into the lives of its audience, and Blake brought it back to life - seventy years on. Yes-s, a mammoth task, with a moral responsibility; stylised to enrich and re-established a world pre - Pearl Harbour - before the gargantuan mushroom. 'The Postmistress' is set at a pinnacle period when the Americans' were encroaching war. This war concept deemed alien to America - since their divided nation, eighty years prior. Blake sets the scene of women preparing for warfare as did their great grand parents during the turbulent time of Lincoln; the difference being, 'modern communications' of a postal service and telegrams.

      Blake's historical fiction uses resources from the era of her subject but systematically portrays contemporary structure at its core. A clever means to put an author's stamp on the script, a method commonly used by contemporary writers to resolve the headache of the conventional chronological arrangement - so the contemporary author decides to take their audience on a journey back and forth via time frames; in Blake's case War in Europe / London - and peace in America. Blake achieves her primary vision by allowing her creative licence to shift between chronological orders - Intermittently developing a credible Blake prose of the world - hence, the extra dimension to this book. Ultimately the characters depicted in the book are not verbosely written as if detailing shipping forecasts - such occasions invariably distract the author's historical prose. The author is 'writing from her impression of a war-torn era', simulated by documents, letters and grainy media footage. Valid historical content with the nuance to convey it to fiction - on the intelligence that what has been documented is third or fourth hand information, she isn't disparaging to any particular source. Blake is mollified in research, but not to her detriment. As I've not done eight years of content research, I'm in no position to comment on accuracy errors, especially as the genre is historical 'fiction'. 'The Postmistress' documents three main analogies of women's lives / circumstances / duties - amalgamated behind the physically torturing scenes from the battlefield to the mentally torturing scenes in a post room and onward to the intended recipient. Good news is when the loved ones are returning home injured or found in action. Blake's unearthed data delves into a different angle of torrid warfare the tortuous LIA (Lost in action) reporting, to the tortuous moral decision of a postmaster.

      This was a time when a letter that has taken weeks to arrive to its intended destination, when communication was a desideratum.

      The book's narrations are from reporter Frances Bard, known as Frankie (fictional) she was Edward Murrow's (1908 - 1965) protégé. Edward is not fictional - he was a real 'new-bullet-in man', a household name during WWII - very prominent in American radio news broadcasts. Frankie's deployment during the Blitz captures grandiose acts of human resolve, for the sake of love, loss, and hope all in the hands of the postmistress. Frankie's inspiration was the travel writer Martha Gellhorn (1908 - 1998), like all travel writers; they amass their interview dialogues on transit. Although Frankie uses a portable recording device to document the Jewish fugitives stories while on trains, hoping to reach the promise-land to live out their 'American Dreams' - immigrants eager for a slice of the American pie, yet most of the ports weren't open for business. As fugitives, they were hunted down Tommy Lee Jones style - In a bid to escaping persecution, acts of ethnic cleansing; for them the front-line is on rail-lines, food-lines, and field-lines. In the tales a coincidental hook captivates the audience, with awe, and wonder, followed by a devastating blunder. Blake the author intended the portable recording device usage in the 1940 script - (such a device wasn't in circulation until several years later). Considering the author was going via vocal dialogues for narratives, it would be viable Frankie emulated the process. Therefore, Blake manufactures her own contemporary historical fiction - to serve out her quest of mingling digital vocal converse with chronological data. One minute she's visualising the meticulous facets of the forties, next she is logging onto her account on 'YouTube' deciphering over Edward R Murrow news-bullet-ins - in 'The Postmistress', the 'here and then world's' dance naturally in unison - what comes apparent is that Blake does claim there were three kinds of heroes when warfare knocks at life's door. The bellicose hero who is dutiful in combat who 'lives or dies' - the women who continues with life's daily routines under a cloud of despair and profound uncertainty and the informed postmistress who battles with her postal oath whether or not to deliver an; 'on the event of my death..... Send this letter!' - For the sake of hope. When hope dies, what else is there?

      CBS News extract:

      "Now the talk was of a German invasion. Would England stand? Their tanks and trucks, their guns, hulked useless on the other side of the channel, where they left them at Dunkirk. But when we were told the Brits had dragged cannons out of the British Museum, wheeling them down to the Thames, we nodded".

      This is the moment the Americans had 'opted-in' with their minds and souls. The bigger story that it was the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour took centre stage, well, it makes for a more exclusive news story - however, in reality the Americans' hearts and minds were already won. Only in history syllabuses the big story holds fort. Blake knows there is no credible warfare narrative in portraying one scenario - everyone is valid, no-one is insignificant. Therefore 'The Postmistress', as a piece of historical literature needed to be a reporters styled view-point of the front-line - and as you are aware on the front-line there are a multitude of characters with their own story to tell. Single out personal accounts, 'give-m their fifteen minutes of fame'. Without any vocals, there is no story - this is was Blake's literary battlefield, much of it influenced by Edward R Murrow's journalistic ethic of 'leaving no stone left un-turned, every story is valid'.

      Towards the end, the heroic trio (Frankie, Iris, and Emma) were at the same venue, same time, and talking about the same trepidation, in different perspectives. Highly recommended.

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        13.01.2013 20:22
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        An overhyped and disappointingly confused novel sert during WW2

        Sarah Blake's "The Postmistress" is a strange novel: I can't recall any other novel in which the author explicitly instructs the reader in the first couple of pages as to what exactly the crux of the plot is. I found it more than a little patronising and absolutely unnecessary but 'unnecessary' and overstated are key characteristics in what could have been a great book.

        The eponymous postmistress is Iris James, the forty year old 'in tact' postmaster (although the novel is called the 'Postmistress' Iris insists that the term is postmaster whether the person is male or female) of Franklin, a small community on Cape Cod. She's only been there a year but already she knows everyone; this is the 1940s, long before the internet and even before most people had a telephone at home, so correspondence was by letter or telegram, and with all post passing through her hands, the intuitive postmaster knows everyone's business.

        Emma Fitch is newly arrived in Franklin, a new bride come from the city to join her doctor husband. Her new found happiness does not last long as Dr. Fitch, feeling responsible for the death of a patient during childbirth, decides to leave for England to help attend to casualties during the Blitz.

        Frankie Bard is a 'radio gal' sending reports back to the States from London for CBS. She loves her job and feels strongly that Americans should know what's happening in Europe. Her colleague, Harriet, an veteran reporter in Europe has been gathering snippets of information that suggest that there is more to the story of the Jews than simply being 'refugees'; when Harriet dies in a bombing raid, Frankie persuades her boss to let her travel across Europe to investigate Harriet's theory.

        The arrival of a letter brings bad news for one of the citizens of Franklin and the astute Iris knows immediately what news the envelope contains. She figures that if she can delay the news she can minimise the pain but at heart Iris is devoted to her job and her unwavering belief that the post office reflects what is right and proper: "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." Iris declares Will Iris pass on the letter, keep it until there's a better time, or will the truth remain undiscovered?

        "The Postmistress" is set in the early 1940s at which time the United States had not yet entered the war; preparations were underway, however, should that eventuality occur. The men of Franklin start to enlist, going off to training camps while at home the women gather metal to be salvaged and re-used to build aircraft. Among those who volunteer for civil defence is Franklin's garage owner, Harry Vale, who spends his free time keeping a watch over the harbour for possible signs of a u-boat invasion. I found him one of the more interesting characters but his near paranoia is barely fleshed out leaving the reader wondering why he is so sure the Germans are almost at the door. In fact it's the case that throughout this novel - in which no character is really well developed - the men are by far the more interesting characters and have stories that would be worth reading in their own right.

        Otto Schilling is an Austrian man who arrives in Franklin having been separated from his wife in a refugee camp in France, due to a typographical error in her papers. Harry Vale gives Otto a job and Otto proves to be a good worker but the locals are naturally suspicious. The American government has put a cap on immigration and time is running out for Jewish people trying to find a way out of Germany and other occupied countries but unaware of what is happening in Europe (and even people in Europe did not know the full extent of the horrors faced by Jewish people), the people of Franklin see Otto as a German first and foremost and a German could be a spy.

        The most memorable, and most valuable in a literary sense, part of "The Postmistress" is the middle section when Frankie gets her chance. Things don't go according to plan however, and Frankie has to retrace her journey and conduct her interviews on the trains which are crammed with mostly Jewish refugees trying to get to Bordeaux or Lisbon to get a boat to the States, Cuba or Brazil. The author, Sarah Blake, suddenly starts to write well, getting across the magnitude of the tragedy unfolding as desperate men, women and children squeezed into the train carriages, or waited holding their breath for their documents to be declared in order. Understandably Frankie returns to England a different person, haunted by the stories of what she has seen but she's a journalist and a journalist needs a whole story; what Frankie has is just the edges.

        The people of Franklin, like so many American cities and towns, listen each night to Frankie's broadcasts as she vividly describes what it's like to be squashed up in the bomb shelters and tube stations with hundreds of Londoners, 'funk holes' she calls them (so many times that it becomes an irritation). She describes what it's like to emerge when the all clear sounds, not knowing what's still standing; the horror of day time raids; the courage of the men operating the anti artillery guns. Emma Fitch is one of those listening in Franklin, and while she listens intently, she reacts quite negatively to Frankie as she tells Americans that they must 'pay attention', something she urges throughout the novel.

        "The Postmistress" is a novel that contains too many stories. Otto Schilling's story is poignant and begs to be followed up but it is treated so shabbily that it would have better not to have been included. Other threads could easily have been left out, not because they were unrelated but because the central story, had it been the focus of more attention, would have been enough. It seems to me that Sarah Blake trusts neither her instincts for what makes a good story, and when she's made her point. Having explained some character trait or other, she tends to hammer the point home so that some points are over emphasised while others are left disappointingly sketchy. To say that the book is full of historical errors (on top of the little changes the author admits to having made in the name of literary licence) is to kick "The Postmistress" when it's down, it is enough to say there are lots; the book is poorly researched and the writing is clumsy and awakward enough to require some sentences to be read and re-read.

        326 pages
        Not recommended.

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          13.03.2011 16:33
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          A novel which fails to deliver due to sloppy research, awful pacing and some poor characterisation

          I buy a lot of books in Sainsburys these days, for the simple reason you can get two books for £7 in there, quite a bargain when the RRP of most paperbacks seems to be around the £8 mark these days. Of course this can sometimes lead to problems when I find one book I really want and then struggle to find a second one as my mind tells me it makes better financial sense to buy two.

          The last time I was met with this conundrum of to buy or not to buy, I struggled between a bit of misery bio or a bit of escapist fiction - neither being genres I am particularly fond of. Then I spotted "The Postmistress" and for once in my life, was attracted to a book by the cover - finding the shot of a serious looking woman in 1940s garb with a skyline from London during the Blitz rather compelling. Upon reading the blurb I was seduced by author of "The Help", Kathryn Stockett's fulsome praise and decided to buy it. What I ended up with was misery fiction and I am still reeling a bit at allowing myself to judge a book by its cover.

          ~~The Plot~~

          "The Postmistress" has two settings but tells the stories of three American women during 1940-41 in the era of America's phoney war before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour.

          Frankie Bard is a dynamic young war correspondent who broadcasts to America from Blitz torn London. Spinster Iris James is the new postmaster at the Cape Cod town of Franklin. Emma Fitch is another new arrival in Franklin, as the local doctor's new wife.

          Emma and Iris listen to the radio reports of the war never dreaming that Bard could touch their lives further. But one day Frankie finds a letter which will follow her over a war torn Europe before heading back across the Atlantic to Massachusetts - but will she be able to deliver it?

          ~~Opinion~~

          I had high hopes for this book and have to say I was disappointed to find these hopes dashed within about the first ten minutes of reading it.

          One of the reasons for this is a matter of personal preference and is probably minor for most people but I really dislike how Blake has used the legendary American journalist Edward Murrow as a character in this book - fictionalising him as she goes and, I believe, doing him a great disservice in the process.

          Furthermore, Blake seems incapable of fleshing her characters out. Both Emma and Iris are particularly one-dimensional for instance. Iris is portrayed as a boring, methodical woman devoid of much in the way of a personality. Emma, who is revealed as an orphan comes across as needy and clingy. Both women have a love interest but only Emma's husband Will is of any interest - a doctor who loves her with what seems to be an almost unhealthy obsession but who then flies in the face of all Blake has told us about him by abandoning her.

          His departure is crucial to the storyline of the book but doesn't make sense. I actually felt rather angry at how Blake had brought this about and from thereon in the book lost the limited appeal it had for me as his departure left me wondering what the point of the previous pages had been.

          The only character with any serious development is Frankie, but even then Blake seems to take licence with her and how an ambitious reporter would behave - taking her in one scene from the Savoy Hotel bar to a knee trembler outside with a posh bloke she's just met. Everything about this scene screams of Blake's desperation to add a little sex and it's about as erotic as a bath in treacle, never mind the fact it is completely out of character for Frankie to do this.

          Frankie is supposed to be hard nosed but she seems to cry at the wrong times. She manages to see some horrific scenes in a trip she takes across Europe in 1941 (how she managed to get from London to occupied Paris by train in the midst of war isn't explained) without shedding a tear yet earlier on when Murrow first refuses to allow her to work on researching what is happening to the Jews in the occupied areas she sobs in a hideously self pity filled manner.

          Other things don't make sense. Emma's husband Will only seems to have one meaningful conversation in the entire book but it's with Frankie - despite Blake's insistence that Will worships the ground Emma walks on.

          Reading the conversation I didn't grasp a situation which I will presume Blake wished to create - two Americans in London during wartime who realise time is precious and therefore instantly fall into a deep and meaningful rapport as they shelter from the bombs during the Blitz. Except it doesn't ring true - it's too clichéd for words. I suppose it could have been worse of course - she could have had them engage in a knee trembler for good measure.

          The book is poorly structured too. Chapters jump from one character's perspective to another's in a way that makes it hard to follow in places. Worse, the storyline is slower to move than the traffic round Hyde Park Corner in rush hour. After I was about an hour in it struck me that perhaps Blake had intended to write a film script - which would explain the constant jumping from place to place or character to character, and her desperation to build tension over a letter which loses its significance with every page you turn. It's just unfortunate that the conversations she creates between characters are so incredibly dull.

          Blake's poor research also doesn't help the book - she refers to areas in London as "blocks" - a term Londoners obviously don't use. She is obsessed with calling Britain "England" and referring to its people as the English. I appreciate this is a common mistake American people make but as a Scot it's a bit grating. She refers to the "medieval spires" on Westminster Abbey, clearly failing to realise those "spires" weren't added until the 18th century. Most unforgivably perhaps is her inability to vividly paint London for me - a city I know so well.

          One scene in the book is set at High Street Kensington Underground station, with Blake using this as a bomb shelter. Anyone familiar with that tube station will know it's not a deep line station and as such wouldn't offer much in the way of real protection in an air raid with the southern edges of the platforms there being exposed to the open air. Similarly when Frankie decides she finally wants to come home to America, she just ambles down to the London docks, gets a ticket and is on her way home on a liner almost immediately - which I struggled to believe - most ships travelled across the Atlantic in convoys to add safety in numbers against the German U Boats plying the ocean, and provincial ports were used instead.

          Blake then takes complete historical licence with a recording machine Frankie uses to capture the words of refugees she encounters as she travels from Berlin to the border between France and Spain on trains. This journey supposedly takes place in 1941 but the machine she clearly describes wasn't invented until 1944. She cheerfully explains this away in an afterword in the book, claiming that a prototype existed in 1941 - so that's all right then.

          ~~Finally~~

          This book was a bitter disappointment for me. What had the potential to be excellent was let down by silly plot devices, poor characterisation and Blake's inability to efficiently reach a conclusion to her book.

          The ending took a good 50 pages more than was necessary, so obvious was what was coming, but Blake's desire to seemingly add to the tension must have made her oblivious to this. By the time the ending came I had stopped caring about the letter, never mind the characters.

          Blake is capable of writing excellent descriptive prose - I have to say I haven't read quite as good a description of a kiss for some time - but her poor research and inability to construct characters fully and in a manner that allows the reader to get to know them enough to empathise with them is a problem.

          Conversations suffered from lack of character development and apart from the one section where Frankie talked to Will I found the interaction between other characters laboured.

          I do wonder if perhaps I am too pedantic for this - does it really matter that Frankie was using technology which didn't exist as she tried to record the voices of the Jews? But then I realised that for me anyway, it did matter. Blake used a confirmed moment in history and then fictionalised it with a piece of technology which made it easier for her to do her job and if it had existed at that time, might have actually helped the Jews and opened the closed American borders to them. One would have thought that hearing the voices of those refugees on the radio in America in 1941 had the potential to change history. Obviously Blake couldn't change history in a story as well known as World War 2 making the poetic licence ultimately pointless.

          It made me see that that's the trouble when you play about with history - it has a habit of not going the way you might have originally intended it to.

          So all in all a very disappointing read - the cover suggests some high piece of literature but what you are met with is an author who isn't half as clever as she thinks she is.

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