The Postmistress – Sarah Blake

I have a funny relationship with books about World War II. There have been some real successes (such as Ian McEwan’s ‘Atonement’ or Sarah Waters ‘The Night Watch’ – the latter of which grew and grew on me) and at the same time their have been some real flops which I simply haven’t enjoyed. I sometimes feel as if, partly because I studied WWII and ‘the Blitz spirit’ in a lot of detail during my education, no matter how much we read about it nothing will quite capture it or tell the story in a different way (which I did feel ‘Atonement’ and ‘The Night Watch’ did). When ‘The Postmistress’ by Sarah Blake was sent to me last year I really didn’t think it would be very me and so put it away. However seeing it on the latest Richard and Judy book club choice (I have no idea how they do it anymore, I will have to investigate) which has introduced me to some great books in the past; I thought it might be a very good hospital read. And it was… but one I also had some issues with in hindsight.

‘The Postmistress’ captures you pretty much from the start as you read a fictional foreword which discusses how really when it comes to war we as a race haven’t moved on that much. It then continues to hold you as you enter the lives of Frankie, Emma and Iris in the Fall of 1940 as World War II really begins to take hold on the UK. Interestingly though it is only Frankie who is really part of ‘the Blitz spirit’ as she is a radio presenter based in London passing what its really like for people there over the airwaves to her listeners in America, two of which are Emma and Iris back in Cape Cod. Both these women are new arrivals in town. Iris is the new, and suspiciously single and therefore trouble according to the local gossips, Postmistress of the town and Emma the new young doctor’s wife. You might be wondering how this all interlinks, and indeed I was, but through events during the next few years everything does, though how I am inclined not to say as really it would ruin the book for those of you who go onto read it.

It’s a highly readable novel and I admit I managed it in two sittings. I liked all three women and indeed some of the men that come into their lives. Sarah Blake does manage to capture the feeling and atmosphere of the war, both through Frankie’s time in London and then her travels in Europe in 1941 following the Jews as they try to leave, and there are some genuinely shocking moments which you don’t quite expect even though you know the territory you are heading into with a book about the Second World War. How it all hung together was dubious though. The link between Frankie and the other two woman was one of coincidence but also one that even two thirds through wasn’t really doing anything and I was struggling to work out why the book was titled ‘The Postmistress’. You see Iris, whilst her story bubbled along in the background, really wasn’t in it much. This then all changes in the fourth section of the book but I did feel the real story was very much about Frankie and could simply have been that. I didn’t understand the whole relevance of the Cape Cod story really, yet I did enjoy those parts too.  

Then reading other reviews after finishing it, and subsequently reading ‘the story behind the story’ I was shocked to learn that the author had actually pushed forward the use of a disc recorder in order to help the story. This shouldn’t matter to me really it wasn’t a fact I would have known myself until then, and indeed it doesn’t take away the fact the book was an enjoyable read, and yet it somehow does matter and both broke the spell of the novel and dampened my opinion of it somewhat. I now feel it’s a great read, but a slightly manipulated one in order to try and have more impact when it didn’t really need it. Read it if you want to be entertained but not if you like historical books factually correct, which sounds harsh but is how I feel about it now. 8/10 for readability and escapism but 4/10 for feeling slightly cheated in some ways so overall 6/10.

Reading that back I am feeling a bit bad. Should the factual inaccuracies matter?  I mean I am prepared to completely suspend my beliefs when reading about Vampires or serial killers so why not when I am reading something historically based? It’s left me in a quandary, I would love to know your thoughts on this issue… oh and the book too if you have read it!

9 Comments

Filed under Penguin Books, Review, Sarah Blake

9 responses to “The Postmistress – Sarah Blake

  1. novelinsights

    🙂 I like how you’ve broken down the scores. I can see what you mean about feeling cheated when the details aren’t mostly accurate. For example with The Other Boleyn Girl, even though liberties were taken in terms of characterisation I loved the way that Greggory referred to historical details such as Anne’s necklace which you see in her portaits. It sounds like an enjoyable if flawed novel.

    • Well the thing is Polly that I did like it in a lot of ways it was all the digging about after and what I found out that made me rather cross and tarnished it for me. It seemed fairest to be honest and give it both scores.

      People can slate Gregory but the research she does is extensive and the liberties she takes are always informed by something factual. That to me is good entertaining historic fiction.

  2. I love the sound of The Postmistress, for me the inaccuracies don’t matter in a work of fiction… as long as there is no pretense that it is indeed fact.
    However, I share your ‘funny relationship’ with War literature. For me, Atonement and the Pat Barker trilogy were winners. But, throughout my education I have studied either WW1 or WW2 so many times, in English and History at Primary through to College education, that I find it hard to face this genre without a inner sense of dread!
    Maybe this recommendation will lure me out of my prejudices?

    • The thing was whilst she didnt infer it was fact, the whole machine used was a massive part (and emotive tool) in the book. I did also miss out the whole Cap Cod silliness that I found out was based on nothing too.

      Its weird how lots of people (I read that Judy of Richard and Judy feels the same) have this strange relationship with WWI or WWII, the latter most commonly, fiction. It ca be so hit and miss but I think thats because it is sooooo written about. Its natural I guess as its a huge moment in history.

      I do find the period between wars utterly fascinating though.

  3. I have lowered my opinion of a historical fiction novel before after doing a bit of research later. I think it’s more a case of disappointment than anything else — adding drama where it wasn’t needed, fundamentally changing the personalities of historical figures instead of thoughtfully working with who they actually were. It’s not that I’m a stickler for facts but that I feel that it’s a bit of a cheat to change things. It would be smarter to work with the true history of a time.

  4. Harry

    Travel by train, Dover to Calais during 1941…get real ….ruined it for me.

    • Karen

      The cancelling machine and other post office details bothered me. It’s hard to believe she didn’t look at old photos of this huge device.

      • I’ve forgotten most of this book now Karen if I am being 100% truthful. It could have been excellent but the lack of research or glaring errors to make the story happen did taint it for me.

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