Thursday 30 March 2017

Review: The Postmistress by Sarah Blake

Viking, €10.99, Paperback

When the Pentagon was targeted in the 9/11 attacks, author Sarah Blake was living in Washington DC with her husband and two sons.

The aftermath in DC, with evacuation notices and tanks on the streets, made Blake think of what life must have been like in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor. And it is in this era that she sets her second novel, The Postmistress.

The book has been a New York Times bestseller for the past year and has now crossed the Atlantic and repeated the trick in Britain.

Set between London and Cape Cod in 1940/41, The Postmistress instantly calls to mind other wartime novels like Ian McEwan's Atonement or Sebastian Faulks' Birdsong and that may explain its extraordinary appeal.

It follows the fortunes of three heroines. The postmistress of the title is Iris James, a 30-something 'spinster' who presides over the mail for the small town of Franklin and one day breaks with all her personal beliefs by holding a letter bearing bad news back from its intended recipient.

Emma Fitch has just arrived in town as the new wife of the local doctor, while New Yorker Frankie Bard is a war correspondent based in London, whose radio reports on the nightly bombings tie them all neatly together.

Blake's aim is to humanise the anonymous stories of conflict, beginning with the Martha Gellhorn quote from The Face Of War -- "War happens to people, one by one".

She does an engaging job of writing about the 'terrifying accidents' of war, the sheer bad luck of it that defines why one person will live and one will die. Or as Frankie puts it in one of her reports: "Every story -- love or war -- is a story about looking left when we should have been looking right".

Blake is a fan of flowery language and can get a little carried away. In one love scene with Iris she writes: "She wanted skin and the soft marshland of this man's body against her own," a line that called to mind in this reader the distinctly unerotic scenes of dank swampy bird sanctuaries.

At other times, Blake's descriptive powers work well, creating pleasing images, like when Iris is described as "probably a spinster; the pathetic type who reads passion into the twist of a shut umbrella".

Blake knits the characters' stories together with a light touch, while the novel itself is densely written, giving the impression of great richness.

There's no denying the appeal of this romantic wartime story, and it manipulates the reader like an expert lover but I was left wondering, where's the passion?

Finishing this book felt like ingesting a very convincing substitute for something real, a sanitised version of the messy reality of life.

And war, like love and life, is anything but clean.

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