Letters from the Edge
I’m in mourning for The Postmistress, newly released in Penguin paperback and unveiled as one of Richard and Judy’s Book Group Spring titles. 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.
A month ago, before the bombs had begun in earnest, Murrow had pulled off a broadcast from five points around London, bringing home the sounds of the bombarded city at night. Frankie had stood with him, watching him poised at the mouth of the bomb shelter down by the crypt of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, moving the microphone cable out of the way of the Londoners as they descended, a courteous escort underground. […] And when the air raid started, the long swooning climb up the octave in the sky, Murrow’s tense, excited voice narrated the incoming drone of the Luftwaffe, here they come, you can hear them now, and Frankie had felt untouchable then, immortal, holding the microphone up to the night. Here and now. Do you hear this? She wanted to add her voice to Murrow’s, wanted her voice to find the ear of the listeners on the other side of the cable. In that moment, through the air, the Germans plowed straight into an American living room and Frankie was holding the curtain back so they could hear it better, and it was a dare. I dare you, she thought now, to look away.
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 [some of] its good parts doesn’t add up to a perfect whole.
Here’s a snippet of Murrow broadcasting live from St. Martin in the Fields, Trafalgar Square, 1940
And here’s the text of one of Murrow’s broadcasts from his book, This is London
Keep Calm and Carry On Poster at Barter Books
Sarah Blake’s website
Penguin website – an interview with Sarah Blake