The Postmistress

Sarah Blake has written an intriguing and ambitious novel, full of what is ultimately unfulfilled promise.

Ostensibly about the relations between three women – a radio reporter in London during the Blitz and two women listening to her in a small town on the US eastern seaboard, one of whom is emphatically not the eponymous postmistress – this is a novel that is really about words and people’s ability to communicate with one another. The writer takes so many artistic liberties – a somewhat shaky geography of Europe, a trip through the Continent which pays scant attention to the reality of the war situation, a war poster which, although familiar now on thousands of coffee cups but which would never have been seen by wartime Londoners, and (as the author blithely confesses) a key role for a piece of technology to which the person involved simply could not have had access – that the book almost completely fails in terms of the realism of its plot development. Character development is also unsatisfactory, with only Frankie Bard, the radio reporter, realised in any rounded way – albeit that sometimes her naivety appears to sit poorly alongside her achievements in having got to such a position in journalism.

Ignoring all that, what we are left with, however, is the author’s love of words – stemming no doubt from the poetry which is evidently a key part of her own life. Ms Blake occasionally over-reaches herself, perhaps as a result of a lack of experience as a novelist, but the key parts of the novel are beautifully described – for instance, the vibrant colour of a US coastal town as people enjoy a last summer of innocence ahead of the inexorable advance of war contrasts well with a bleak, desperate London staggering under the Blitz. Where the novel works best is the scenes with Frankie delivering her reports in the studio – scenes that are charged with genuine tension, seeking as they do the involvement of the US in the war effort, with a hush descending over the words on the page as in the studio preparing for transmission – which are authentically realised. Frankie’s scenes in the underground stations and her railway journey through Europe are evocatively and, leaving aside the practical aspects of the latter, realistically and movingly captured. The author has an evident, if perhaps nowadays anachronistic, love of radio as a means of communication and the angst with which her central (perhaps only) character views her work – Is anyone out there listening? Are these words having the effect I crafted them to have? What happens to the characters beyond the fragments of stories captured and presented? – is not only an important part of the development of her character but something which continues to have resonance to those involved in communications (including modern day bloggers!).

Ultimately, we have a  novel about words – beautifully (for the most part) put together on the page but frequently lacking a reason to be. That’s a shame, since the central theme (fate, or destiny, and people’s perceptions of a controlling force in their lives which actually isn’t there, just other people who do have an influence, for good or evil) is an interesting one in the specific setting of the power of radio in World War 2 and, in the hands of a more experienced novelist (and I would potentially include a later career Sarah Blake in that), it could have created a powerful work. As it is, it clearly falls short of the ambition the author has for it – and I suspect that is a disappointment not least to Ms Blake herself.

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