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Sunday, October 16, 2011


Much humour and insight in Sarah Blake’s evocative novel. (Review by Caroline Smart)

Set in World War II, The Postmistress lives up to all the accolades appearing on the book’s front (pictured) and back cover. It is indeed “beautifully written”, “heart-wrenching” and “profoundly moving”.

It deals with three women and how the medium of radio affected their lives, at the same time influencing a doctor in a small American community to head for London to engage in the war. The other means of communication that play an important role in this well thought-out book is correspondence. With today’s technology, letters are becoming a rarity but back in 1940 they were one of the few ways of connecting people, along with telephones and telegrams.

The narrative moves easily from war-torn London to the peaceful shores of Franklin, Massachusetts, a small seaside town on Cape Cod on the Eastern shores of America. America at that time had not entered the war, remaining neutral.

In Franklin, two women go about their lives. Iris James, the postmistress of Franklin, likes to live an ultra-organised life, her focus being on the efficiency of her post office and the value of letters. Emma Fitch, the vulnerable young wife of the town doctor, keeps very much to herself, all her attentions being devoted to her husband. While the war is further away than any distance in their personal experience, they are catapulted into the mayhem as they listen to the reports of a young radio reporter, Frankie Bard.

Working for American radio newsman Ed Murrow (a well-known real-life personality) and broadcasting from London in the Blitz, Frankie describes the chaos and devastation of the city as it takes a battering from the German planes. Her beat is not statistics but rather news of a more general and personal nature as she picks up scraps of life from ordinary people in the streets - like a milkman’s struggle to keep glass bottles or a pair of shoes that remained untouched in a bombed-out window for a fortnight.

Still agonising over the death of one of his patients which he considers could have been due to a lack of oversight on his part, Emma’s husband is impelled by the broadcasts to travel to London to offer his medical skills as some form of atonement.

Later in the story, Frankie Bard gets sent to Europe to establish if there is any sinister reason why Jewish people are cramming into trains in their thousands as they flee Germany. These experiences are related with poignant sensitivity.

There is as much humour and insight in Sarah Blake’s writing as there is pathos in the emotions that naturally follow a book dealing with the subject of war. She lets you feel the fear, smells and devastation of a city under fire, ably reflecting the survival spirit of the Londoners.

The Postmistress by Sarah Blake is published by Penguin. Recommended retail price R130. ISBN: 978 0 141 04661 7 – Caroline Smart