The shrill sirens of war sound out, both literally and figuratively in Sarah Blake’s poignant World War II novel, The Postmistress. Set against the terrifying backdrop of the Blitz and the tsunamic wave of Nazism, we come to find that within every story, running through and around and all along its edges are many more, infinitely more stories. Some are to be told, and some are to be held close…at least for awhile.
“Writers. They are not to be trusted with our hearts.”
I love this line. It appears early on, in an opening dinner-party scene as a much older, reflective, former war-time correspondent Frankie Bard readies to tell the story she never could bring herself to file. As I take a deep breath—that intake of oxygen that prepares me for what is to unfold, I reflect upon that line.
For me, each new book I read is fraught with emotional risk. I open my heart up entirely to an author when I commit to a book. It is theirs to do with what they will. My pulse quickens as I travel deeper into the story’s interior; heart palpitations beat drum-like in my ears when a scene takes a dramatic turn; my chest literally aches for the suffering of my characters. And with those rare works that affect me so personally, my heart simply breaks, rendered to pieces by the author. I cannot bear to touch another book for some time. Such was the case with The Postmistress.
We bring our own consciousness to every story we read. It is the author’s challenge to set theirs aside to pull off the story—that’s what I find so remarkable about historical fiction in particular. Sarah Blake and I, and you—we live in the era of 24/7 news, streaming video, social media. Ours is a post-9/11 consciousness. Today, revolutions launch on Facebook and raids on Middle East compounds are tweeted about as they happen.
Not so in World War II. Ms. Blake deftly brings us back to the consciousness that was 1940’s London—to a war that for the first time was told through the medium of radio. We stop reading the pages and instead find ourselves hearing, as if gathered around vacuum-tube radios in our warm living rooms in America. We sit attentively, a little uncomfortably—listening to the sounds of Europe falling. Londoners finish their G&T’s and with a certain British reticence—a generational reserve built up from centuries of conquests, and fires, and plagues—lower themselves into the funk holes, just in time for the arrival of the planes that will drop the bombs.
How ironic it is, that in this story it is an American woman, a female war-correspondent with long legs and a melodic voice, who desperately calls to us from London via her microphone. Such is the literary license utilized by Sarah Blake to craft another view of war—to expose those unseen edges. It is Frankie Bard’s own war-time journey, and the final filing of her closely held story, that attempts to pull those edges close—like suturing a collective laceration, only leaving us all with a scar.