Book Review: The Postmistress

Me and Audible have a routine. Every Tuesday, I place myself in front of my computer with a cup of tea and half an hour set aside for my weekly treat: perusing the new audio book releases. About a month or so ago, I saw a book called The Postmistress, checked the description, which sounded interesting enough in a vague sense that I clicked on the sample - after struggling through a few good books ruined by terrible narrators, I've learned to click the sample to avoid wasting my credits on something that's going to make my fillings hurt.

And I was captivated. 60 seconds of listening to Orlagh Cassidy narrating Sarah Blake's words made me hungry for more. Not the sort of "that sounds good, I'll get it and listen to it down the road" but the "I need to download this right now and start reading immediately". And the entire book was like that. Breathtaking.

The Postmistress is the story of three women at the start of World War II: Iris, the Postmistress in a small town in Massachusetts, Emma, the newlywed wife to the town's doctor who’s volunteering in London during the blitz and Frankie, a reporter for CBS, reporting the stories of the British surviving and dying during the blitz and eventually, stories from other areas of Europe. The lives of these women slowly intersect and get woven to the others, connections made before you quite know what is happening, each moment leaving to another, to decisions and actions, inexorably drawing them closer. Each woman makes a choice that comes to define her: Emma trying to keep her husband safe from the bombs by sheer force of will, Iris withholding a piece of mail with important information and Frankie trying to make the Americans listening to her reports understand how terrible it is in Europe, trying to make them come across the Atlantic to help.

It is also the story of the US at the beginning of the war, a nation unable to believe the stories coming from Europe, unwilling to join the fight, then slowly changing as the threat of Hitler's forces grows more personal. It is a story of the horror of war, from bombs to flight, large, defining events we've had learned of in history class made human, real and immediate by Blake's masterful drawing of tiny, heartrending moments. This is Blake's first novel, something that seems impossible considering her mastery of language, her deft use of words and phrases poetic and real, so breathtakingly beautiful I was stunned and awestruck at the same time as I was captivated by the story. This book is about what happens around the edges of a story, about the lives and people and moments that made up the war, bringing it home in a way I've never felt before, despite having heard and read and seen an awful lot about this time in our history.

This is a book that perfectly matches narrator to author, the beautiful language true to the era and so is Cassidy’s reading of them, catching the infection and cadence we know from 1940s movies. Together, the words and the voice paint images in your mind to go along with the story - and I'm not just saying that. This is the first time I've had an actual simultaneous movie running in my head as I was listening to the words, perfectly imagining what the characters look like, what the rooms were like - both as a whole and the tiny touches like how a photograph was placed - as well as the larger business, London in ruins, the dunes and the sea in Massachusetts, so real I could smell it. It was an experience so original and exciting that it was hard to face that the book was ending and I would have to let go of these people.

This beauty of a book is a quiet masterpiece, Blake’s use of language as precise and breathtaking to read as to look at a Monet in person and Cassidy’s narration attained a level of perfect I've rarely heard. Do yourself a favor and get the full treat in the audio book to experience the story first and then read it yourself a second time, so you have time to linger and appreciate each sentence.


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