This book is part of the Penguin By Hand set and like “The Help“, it has a beautiful embossed cover. The embossing matches the design and you get the wonderful tactile experience of it feeling as though it’s been cross stitched. I’d been eyeing off the set for a while, and bought myself this book as a treat for finishing a unit at university.
“The Postmistress” by Sarah Blake is a World War II story set in 1941 about three women. There is Iris, who is the postmistress in a small town called Franklin in the USA; Emma, the Franklin doctor’s new wife; and Frankie, an American newsreader based in London that the other two women hear on the radio. The women are united by the increasingly irrefutable impact of the war in Europe on America, and by a letter to be delivered.
I have very complex feelings about this book. On the one hand, Blake is without a doubt a beautiful writer who has brought to life a fraught period in world history from a number of perspectives. Her research is excellent and the detail of her own descriptions of everyday life as well as that of Frankie’s observations in her reports on the radio are very immersive. Frankie is an excellent character and Blake does a great job of handling the peculiar situation women found themselves in during World War II with burgeoning opportunities resulting from necessity and changing social attitudes but the lingering sexism of the past still very much present.
There are some wonderful subtleties in this book, however I did find myself wanting more from the story. I felt that Blake simply did not do the character of Iris, the postmistress, justice. I was completely disinterested in Iris’ blossoming romance with the town mechanic. What I wanted to know more about was about Iris herself. There were only a handful of chapters told from her perspective, and there was scanty information given about all the things I was desperate to know. How did she get the job as postmistress? What was it like working in the post office? I was way more interested in her troubleshooting the machine that printed dates on the letters than I was in her anxiety over her virginity. I feel like with books that look retrospectively at the chronically underwritten role of women in history almost have a duty to look at the influence women had on keeping society running. Blake did a fantastic job in this sense with Frankie, so it just seemed out of step that Iris’ character was cheapened by reducing her to not much more than her relationship with a man.
The other thing that I felt was a wasted opportunity (and this is a minor spoiler, so if you want to read the book completely unsullied, skip to the final paragraph now) was that Blake hints that Frankie’s housemate Harriet had actually met Otto’s wife in London before they were separated in Spain and he went on alone to America. I was hoping that somehow Frankie might have put two and two together, and delivered some of Harriet’s intel or a letter or something but Otto’s story was left in limbo (which, fair enough, it is WWII – that’s realistic) and Frankie’s focus is elsewhere. I think I just felt that maybe where other things had failed and gone wrong, that could have been a nice little thing amongst the collective disaster of war to go right.
This is a well-written book with some great historical and literary merit, and this edition in particular is absolutely gorgeous. A unique take on America’s role in WWII that perfectly captures the senselessness of war, but that I wanted a little bit more from when it came to some of the characters.