The Postmistress

The Postmistress Cover

Sarah Blake

Letters of love, telegrams of loss - the postmistress awaits them all. The wireless crackles with news of blitzed-out London and of the war that courses through Europe, leaving destruction in its wake. Listening intently on the other side of the Atlantic, newly-wed Emma considers the fragility of her peaceful married life as America edges closer to the brink of war. As the reporter's distant voice fills the room, she sits convincing herself that the sleepy town of Franklin must be far beyond the war's reach. But the life of American journalist Frankie, whose voice seems so remote, will soon be deeply entangled with her own. With the delivery of a letter into the hands of postmistress Iris, the fates of these three women become irrevocably linked. But while it remains unopened, can Iris keep its truth at bay?
 Cover

JUDY

Novels about the second world war have a tendency to leave me cold: Sarah Blake’s The Postmistress proved to be a glorious, shining exception; a mesmerising story of bravery, passion, and diabolical evil.

The story opens in 1940 and simultaneously traces the lives of three American women: Iris, postmistress of a small town at the tip of Cape Cod; Emma, the local doctor’s new wife, and Frankie, a glamorous radio reporter broadcasting bulletins to the US from London, now being heavily bombed nightly in the Nazi blitzkrieg.

As postmistress, almost everything affecting the lives of the people back in Franklin passes through Iris’s hands. She takes her responsibilities so seriously that now, aged 40, she remains unmarried and a virgin. But she is gradually drawn to an older man, Harry, who runs the town garage. Their gentle, tender romance unfolds against the heart-stopping backdrop of Frankie’s nightly live dispatches into their cosy homes, describing the hellish scenes in London.

Emma and her husband, Will, listen to them too, appalled at Frankie’s vivid portraits of suffering and death. Eventually the doctor decides he must go to London and do what he can to help. A devastated Emma cannot stop him.

Meanwhile Frankie is agitating to be sent to Nazi-occupied Europe – America is still neutral and its journalists can travel there – because she is convinced Hitler has moved beyond herding Jews into ghettos and has embarked on a covert policy of genocide. Her subsequent interviews with Jewish families fleeing the pogrom are among the most moving passages I can remember reading.

RICHARD

The contrast between comfortable, neutral America and war-torn Europe is powerfully described in The Postmistress, as is ‘radio gal’ Frankie’s determination to shake her listeners by the ears and drag her country into the fight. Author Sarah Blake pulls off a neat trick here: she has Frankie working as one of real-life American broadcaster Ed Murrow’s London news team (Murrow’s legendary live reports during the Blitz galvanised public opinion back home).

The sheer randomness of who survived and who perished under the remorseless German bombing is hauntingly described. ‘Turn left at a corner,’ Frankie reports, ‘and you live. Turn right, you die... and each morning, a person you’ve seen every day isn’t there anymore.’ Frankie also observes – but does not report – the heightened sexuality in survivors.

Set against this elemental human drama, the domestic scenes back in sleepy Cape Cod – it is winter, the tourists long gone – make a fascinating contrast, but even here there is a growing sense of menace. Harry tells Iris he is convinced Nazi U-boats are on their way to their little bay: no-one else believes him but Harry will be vindicated and tragedy follows.

The description of Frankie in occupied France has an unexpectedly surreal flavour. At this stage of the war Americans, papers permitting, were free to wander newly-conquered countries where Hitler’s red, white and black swastikas now fluttered. Frankie witnesses horrors the Nazi censors wouldn’t dream of allowing her to report. Her dispatches must be cunningly worded.

We absolutely loved this fine, richly atmospheric book from a debut author.

Reviews & Comments

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  • I have started reading this book. As of yet I haven't reached an "unputdownable" bit but it is a very good read. I love the way it is written, it feels different to a lot of other "war" books. So far I would recommend this book a 7/10 but I have yet to finish it!

    Catherine

  • Letters from the Edge

    I’m in mourning for The Postmistress. I don’t grieve for what the novel could have been, but for what, according to the blurb, the publisher’s hype, and rave book reviews, it should be. I wanted so much to like this book that I feel bereft.

    Set in the 1940s prior to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour, the setting alternates between Old and New England, between a war-torn, bomb-blitzed London cityscape and the sleepy, coastal town of Franklin, Massachusetts via a couple of visits to Boston and an emotional train ride across Nazi-infested Europe. The action centres around three very different women: Frankie Bard, the worldly-wise CBS ‘radio gal’ working under Edward R. Murrow; Iris James, Franklin’s 40 year-old ‘intact’ postmaster, and Emma Fitch, the doctor’s new orphan-bride. The ways in which their lives criss-cross and connect generates the narrative tension which reaches its climax in the closing pages where they finally meet.

    Blake’s thesis is simple: in time of conflict, ‘how do you bear [in both senses of the word) the news?’ She’s interested in ‘the edges of a war photograph or news report into the moments just after or just before we read or see or hear’. The problem with The Postmistress is that Blake overloads her simple message. It gets lost in her urge to make us ‘pay attention’. In the end, it’s hard to work out what ‘paying attention’ has to do with ‘bearing the news’.

    Frankie wants America to ‘pay attention’ to London’s suffering; Iris is proud of her civil service, of her attention to duty and ‘watching over’ the town; Emma needs someone to ‘watch over’ her; as he loses a patient, Will Fitch worries that he didn’t pay sufficient attention; as he keeps watch for German U-Boats surfacing in Franklin harbour, Harry Vale worries that no one is paying attention. Every scene is infused with ‘paying attention’, even fleeting scenes, such as when Frankie’s boss, Max Prescott of the New York Tribune considers ‘when there wasn’t a word from Frankie … that she had been caught in some lonely room where the world did not pay attention.’ Rather than reinforce the message the constant repetition saturates the narrative.

    Writers have every right to play with history to construct their fictional world. At times, Blake’s fiction is truer than history allows. For example, Frankie’s message to Americans to, ‘KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON, the signs have gone up all over the city, roller-pasted on the still-standing brick sides of buildings’ is a fabrication that works because we expect the iconic image to be there. Yet Frankie wouldn’t have seen a sign designed for use in the event of a German invasion which didn’t happen. The two and a half million copies that the Ministry of Information printed were never actually displayed.

    But Blake manipulates history in other, more troubling ways. For all its claims to universality, of preserving the lost voices of war, she pays no regard to other voices of the 1940s who, like Murrow, sought to break down America’s isolationist stance. In the London scenes, ‘Murrow’s boys’ look inwardly, conversing only amongst themselves, while Frankie’s only meaningful dialogue outside of her job is with Will Fitch, the young American doctor. The perception is that they are the sole carriers of the news to America: no one else is paying attention. But they were. At the same time as Murrow was broadcasting live to American homes, the English author Phyllis Bottome, to take just one example, was in America overseeing the script of her novel, This Mortal Storm. Starring James Stewart, the film version became a Hollywood blockbuster and, along with Murrow’s efforts, is credited with changing American opinion about joining the war.

    When it is good, though, and it is in parts, The Postmistress is very good indeed. Blake fuses Murrow’s now well-known broadcast phrases with Frankie’s words to invest ‘the war story’ that she ‘never filed’ with authenticity. ‘Early on, she’d learned what she could say she saw—a full moon could be described as a bomber’s moon’. Blake writes best when describing war. Whether in ‘Middle Earth’, where ‘everything was turned upside down in a brilliant kaleidoscope of dizzy bright death set against a black silhouette of London’, or a train crammed to tipping point with refugees, she eloquently depicts the glory and horror of war, and the thrilling, dangerous pursuit of the story.

    My disappointment with The Postmistress is probably my own fault. I always take a peek at the last few pages before I start a book, just to get a sense of the ending. Here, I was beguiled by the friendly, yet learned tone of Blake’s explanatory essay where she confides ‘The Story Behind the Story’ so that, even before I’d begun to read the story proper, I believed in the importance of this earnest novel. Sadly, the sum of its good parts doesn’t add up to a perfect whole.

    BookRambler

    Janette Currie

  • I found this really hard going and nothing like as good as the hype suggested.

    The language was flowery to the point of tedious. The story line sentimal and full of handy coincidences that destroy the tiny bits of reality the other parts of the book managed to build up.

    Di

  • I quite enjoyed the storyline but found the language indulgent and overworked. It got to the stage where I had to read paragraphs again and still ended up thinking ' what did that all mean' I think the author tried too hard to be deep and meaningful and instead the meaning became obscure.

    Ann Allan

  • I quite enjoyed the storyline but found the language indulgent and overworked. It got to the stage where I had to read paragraphs again and still ended up thinking ' what did that all mean' I think the author tried too hard to be deep and meaningful and instead the meaning became obscure.

    Ann Allan

  • I found this to be really disappointing and it didn't live up to the hype. Although beautifully written I found the chracters to be superficial and I was glad to reach the end.

    jooley

  • I decided to join the R&J bookclub this season and the first book I selected was The Postmistress by Sarah Blake.

    Overall, I really enjoyed this book. Set in WWII in both Europe and America. It is a story of how a number of lives across the waters can all cross over etc.

    I struggled to get into this book at first as it was written in a slightly different way to what I have read in the past. However, around page 100 the story suddenly all fell into place and I was hooked. The detail that was described in the story felt so real like I was there sometimes.

    I recommend this book if you have time to sit and read it rather than dip in a few pages now and again.

    Lovely story, very heartfelt in places. 7 out of 10

    Louise

  • I had high expectations for this book after reading the blurb on the back. As it suggested it had a feel of "Atonement". However, whilst I enjoyed it I was disappointed. The central theme, the delivering of a letter, lacked impact and the storylines lacked cohesion for me. I was just disappointed by the whole storytelling, I feel it could have been so much better but for me didn't deliver.

    Gill

  • I read this book on Richard's recommendation and found it difficult to get into - it seemed to jump around a lot at first. But about a quarter of way in I began to get hooked - especially when Frankie Bard starting going around Europe and meeting people. I really enjoyed it, and didn't want it to end.

    Pauline

  • Initially I found the story telling hard going and slow. Though as the stories unfolded with Iris & Harry, Emma's wait on news from her husband and Frankie's journey around Europe the sense of foreboding tradegy grew and grew to make you "Pay attention". At times the story does get lost in the authors extravagant prose and obscure observations at times. Overall I'd consider it an intense read which reminds us of the randomness of life and it doesn't always have the fairy tale happy ending - up then that is what the story already knows.

    Fiona

  • I found this a little too descriptive in scenery setting, but I engaged with the main characters, i think there was probably a novel in itself on just the European side. Highlights the difference on both sides as to what was going on in the war really, and how we are still today as suspicious of our neighbours as they were back then!

    Edward Milner

  • I found The Postmistress to be an enjoyable read and quite carefully crafted in places although Frankie's story seems to take predominance over in my opinion, the more engaging stories of Iris certainly, and possibly less so, of Emma. Some really thoughtful parts however, especially the idea of 'looking right' when we often only 'look left' as we journey through life.

    Claire

  • Hard going at first. It took at least 4 chapters for me to get interested. It had moments where i was enthralled, when the character had me hooked and wanting to know more about them, but there were also moments when stopped reading to check how many pages i had left to read!

    I liked the way the characters were linked. I liked that I was introduced to characters to make a war long before my time seem real. I don't think i really needed the other deaths which were unrelated to the war...a bit too much unhappiness for me.

    I also felt a bit frustrated with a few of the characters, Will in particular. I thought he was very selfish. Could he really love Emma and still leave her?

    Definitely made me think, lots to discuss, but slow. You need to persevere which isn't ideal in a book!

    Ruth Hastings

  • I loved this book ,thought it was a great story well told, and am bereft now its finished. It's a book I want all my friends to read so we can discuss it!

    Debbie

  • This book did not meet the hype it got I found it SO predictable and tedious. The characters never developed and I had no empathy with any of them. Couldn't and wouldn't recommend to anyone!

    J Stewart

  • What a disappointment. This was a novel that went nowhere, characters that never came into their own and pretention at its very worst. I was tempted on numoerous occasions to turn to the back page, wondering hopelessly if anything would ever develop. It didn't. What a con!

    Hannah Ahmadi

  • I found this book a really disappointing read. Frankie was the only interesting character, the others were unbelievable and their parts of the story quite boring. The author has attempted to tie their stories together but it feels very contrived and predictable. The only parts I found truly gripping were Frankie's train journeys through Europe. The rest was forgettable nonsense.

    Mary

  • I haven't read a book for about 20 years omg!!! but thought after seeing richard & judy review this book i was going to start reading again!!! very slow to start and had to keep re-reading paragraphs ( was that because i was rusty or the book?) well anyway once i got into it about a 3rd of the way through i really started to enjoy, i'm at the stage now where i have to finish it.....so back to the book, well R&J thats a first for me since i was 18yrs old when i read Jaws could not put that done from start to finish!!!

    sharon jayne johnstone

  • I loved this book and couldn't put it down. Frankie Bard was my favourite character and I loved the scenes in Europe on the train with the refugees. It's a very powerful novel, gripping and emotional and I loved the three women and the connections that were slowly revealed.

    Zinnia Angus

  • Disappointing! 160 pages in and had to give up. Have read all R&J recommended books and this one was just not for me.

    Ali Osmond

  • I agree with many others it took be a long way in before I could say I was gripped. After that I did quite enjoy it and at points found it moving. I wouldn't recommend it to my friends though - because I dont want to read a third of a book before I really start to enjoy it!

    AnneL

  • A disappointing book in some respects and wonderful in others. The characters never really came to life and so much more could have been done with them that it left the whole thing feeling a bit flat. The train travels were gripping and were very thought provoking. It made me realise that the people who were fleeing were just ordinary people, I always knew that but this bought it into focus. All in all I think the book tried to be too clever with hidden meanings and subtle undertones which don't quite work. More of a reading group book than an enjoyable novel.

    Julie

  • A disappointing book in some respects and wonderful in others. The characters never really came to life and so much more could have been done with them that it left the whole thing feeling a bit flat. The train travels were gripping and were very thought provoking. It made me realise that the people who were fleeing were just ordinary people, I always knew that but this bought it into focus. All in all I think the book tried to be too clever with hidden meanings and subtle undertones which don't quite work. More of a reading group book than an enjoyable novel.

    Julie

  • I am really disappointed that I didn't enjoy this book as much as I should! It took me a few chapters before I got into it, then I lost interest towards the end. I didnt find the characters likeable so couldn't warm to them. I would have liked to have learnt more about the minor character - Otto the Austrian. Feel a bit let down by it to be honest!

    Lara

  • took me awhile to get into this book, in fact i almost didn't carry on reading it, how ever i,m glad i did as i enjoyed it and found it interesting and moving. I,m not sure about Will leaving Emma to go to England it seemed a bit far fetched but may be it would have happened after all real life is stranger than fiction.

    janet Ellis

  • I have just finished The Postmistress and I feel awful in sayinging that I was disappointed with the book. It did not grip me and I felt deflated when I finished it.

    Heather Johnson

  • I really wanted to like this book but found it disappointing. I didn't warm to any of the characters and it seemed like over 300 pages leading nowhere. I was glad to reach the end, even if it was a bit sudden.

    Sheila

  • The best thing about this book is it is quite short. The worst is the historical bloopers it gives us. For instance, there was a boat train running to perfect time between Britain and France during World war Two. Such a pity nobody told the soldiers at Dunkirk!!! What a better way to get home, than standing up to your neck in cold water waiting and hoping for a boat to take you back! No Jew in Europe would stand up and announce they were a Jew, which would have been quite obvious with the large yellow star on their clothes. I could go on, but this book is the one bad one I've ever had from Richard and Judy and I'd rather forget it QUICKLY

    Mary

  • A story that successfully demonstrates the importance of letters during a time when written communication was a key source of news. Not my usual sort of read and by no means the best from the list but nevertheless a good read on a dull day.

    Zoe-Hayley

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