Has there actually been an increase in historical fiction set during or around World War II? Or is that just my perception, fueled by recent reading of Irène Némirovsky, Ellen Feldman, and Alan Furst? (Leaving out Sarah’s Key, which I couldn’t get through, and 22 Britannia Road, which I haven’t attempted, among others …) If it is true, of course I wonder why — but Sarah Blake, in the Author’s Note at the end of The Postmistress suggests that writing about World War II is a way for a novelist to think about the wars the U.S. is currently involved in. I had heard about this book — the one-sentence summary is, “During the war a postmistress in a tiny town on Cape Cod doesn’t deliver all the mail.” But that summary is sketchy, and made the book sound possibly cute or sentimental. (See The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society.) Inaccurate.
The Postmistress centers on three women. One, Iris James, is the aforesaid postmistress of Franklin, Massachusetts, an upright spinster who cherishes the sense of order inherent in her job. “If there was a place on earth in which God walked, it was the workroom of any post office in the United States of America.” Sometimes, on the radio, Iris hears the American reporter Frankie Baird filing stories from London during the Blitz, and she’s not completely comfortable with Frankie’s reporting. Who could be? Blake takes us to London, too. We’ve read about the frantic gaiety and the noise and dust, but the contemporary writing about the war is reticent about the wretched emotional impact of immense, random death and destruction. One of the things Blake does especially well is demonstrate how Frankie, to get her story, has to become involved emotionally and then wrench herself away from her subjects. Time and again, Blake inflicts these wounds on Frankie, who believed, once, “that the scraps of life [on which she reported] pulled together into a shape.” But too many deaths teach her that “Shape was the novelist’s lie.” Finally, back in Franklin, there’s Emma, the young bride of Dr. William Fitch, who takes off for London to volunteer after the death of one of his hometown patients.
The characters are well-drawn, the story is bold, the writing is beautiful. For example, on a summer day a man paints a house on the Cape:
He climbed down two rungs and began the boards beneath the sill. The ladder crosshatched the sky above his head. He was, she watched him, profoundly alone, a long lean line, a body painting wood.”
It’s been easy to think of World War II as somehow quaint: “Keep Calm and Carry On” is now a slogan for an apron or a T shirt. Maybe that’s a legacy of the generation that fought the war and wanted to forget. And maybe the project of this new wave of novels is to restore the some of the grief and horror to the way we think about it.