It's 1940. Frankie Bard is an American radio reporter working in London for CBS, broadcasting news on the Blitz into American homes. Frankie is rightIt's 1940. Frankie Bard is an American radio reporter working in London for CBS, broadcasting news on the Blitz into American homes. Frankie is right in the heart of the action, spending her nights sheltering from the bombs and her days reporting on homes that have been destroyed, families torn apart and children left orphaned.
Meanwhile on the other side of the Atlantic, we see the effects the war is having on the small town of Franklin, Massachusetts. In Franklin, we meet the postmistress (or actually, postmaster, as she prefers to be called): Iris James, a middle-aged single woman. And we also meet Emma Fitch, the doctor’s wife. When Emma's husband travels to London to offer his medical skills to the war effort, it sets a chain of events in motion which will affect the lives of all three women.
I seem to have been reading a lot of books about World War II recently – books written during the war, set during the war and about the aftermath of the war. The Postmistress is a book I've had my eye on for a while and I was looking forward to reading it. Unfortunately, it turned out not to be one of the better WWII books I've read. In fact, it's probably the most disappointing book I've read so far this year and I very nearly gave up on it after a few chapters. Although the writing was very elegant, it felt impersonal somehow and scenes that I'm sure should have made me cry left me unmoved.
The biggest problem I had was that I didn’t feel a real connection to any of the characters. The only one who came alive for me at all was Frankie Bard. I thought the book lacked focus and might have worked better if it had concentrated more on one central character. As it was, I'm not sure The Postmistress was the best title for this book. It implies that the postmistress (i.e. Iris) would be the main focal point of the book, which she wasn't – this was really Frankie's story in my opinion – and although Iris does play an important part in the plot, her character’s potential was never fully explored. As for the third main female character, Emma, she seemed very two-dimensional and I never felt that I got to know her at all.
It's not all bad, though: there were some things that I did like about this book. I enjoyed the section where Frankie was sent to report on the refugee trains departing from Berlin and to attempt to interview some of the Jewish families who were leaving the city. I'm sure she wouldn't really have found it quite so easy to travel by ferry from England to France in the middle of the war and then to catch a train to Berlin, though! Despite this and a few other inaccuracies (in the author’s note, for example, Sarah Blake admits that the recording equipment Frankie was carrying hadn't been invented until 1944), I thought this was easily the most compelling part of the novel. This was around 150 pages into the book and was the first time I'd found myself becoming absorbed in the story, which made me glad I hadn't abandoned it. Sadly though it didn't continue to hold my attention and I quickly started to lose interest again when the focus returned to Iris and Emma.
I did find it interesting to read about the various ways in which the war was affecting the lives of people in Massachusetts, thousands of miles away from the fighting. We see people worrying about loved ones in Europe, people feeling frightened and expecting a German U-boat to land at any minute, people tuning into the radio every day to hear the latest news and wishing there was some way they could help. Most of the WWII books I've read have been from a European perspective so this was something different and I really liked that aspect of the book.
The Postmistress didn't work for me personally, but I've seen a lot of reviews that are much more positive than mine, so clearly other readers have been able to connect with the characters and the story better than I have. I do however think it would make a good book group choice, as it raises some issues which would be perfect for a discussion, such as the importance of truth and whether the truth should always be told – and what happens to the people we hear about on the news after the reporter stops speaking and the radio is turned off....more
Mollie Panter-Downes was the London correspondent for the New Yorker and this collection from Persephone Books brings together a number of her contribMollie Panter-Downes was the London correspondent for the New Yorker and this collection from Persephone Books brings together a number of her contributions to the magazine which were written during World War II. The book opens with her Letter from London dated 3 September 1939 and ends with another dated 11 June 1944. Between the two letters are twenty-one short stories, each of which offers an insight into the hopes and fears of British people trying to deal with the changes the war has brought to their lives.
These stories are not particularly dramatic or sensational in any way. They are realistic stories that focus not so much on the war itself, but on the effects of the war on the women (and a few of the men) who were left behind at home. We read about women attending sewing parties, worrying about loved ones who are away fighting, preparing for their husbands to go to war, coping with being pregnant during the war and experiencing almost any other wartime situation you can think of.
After finishing the book, there are a few stories that stand out in my memory more than the others. In Clover, for example, is a story about a rich woman called Mrs Fletcher who takes in a family of evacuees from a poor part of London. This was an interesting study into how the war pushed together people of different social backgrounds who wouldn't usually have mixed with each other. This Flower, Safety follows Miss Mildred Ewing as she moves from one hotel to another in an attempt to escape from danger, beginning to despair of ever finding somewhere safe to live. Then there's the story of Miss Burton, who is so hungry she can think about nothing else. The title story is also one of the best; it's about a woman who has been having an affair with a married man. On the evening before he leaves to go to Libya, she wonders how she'll be able to find out whether he's dead or alive.
The stories are published in chronological order, as they appeared in New Yorker between 1939 and 1944, showing how life in Britain changed as the war progressed. Despite the subject matter, these stories are not all bleak and depressing - there's also a lot of humour in Panter-Downes' writing, in the form of gentle wit and irony.
As with most of the short story collections that I've read, there were some that didn't interest me very much, but others that I loved and wished were longer. Overall though, it was a wonderful book and I would highly recommend it. ...more
Shortly before the start of World War II, Nona Ranskill was swept overboard whilst on a cruise and was washed up on a desert island. The only other inShortly before the start of World War II, Nona Ranskill was swept overboard whilst on a cruise and was washed up on a desert island. The only other inhabitant of the island is a man known as 'the Carpenter', who had also fallen overboard on an earlier occasion. At the beginning of the book, the Carpenter has died and we first meet Miss Ranskill as she's digging his grave. After burying the Carpenter, Miss Ranskill makes an attempt to escape from the island - and luckily she is rescued by the British Navy. Returning to England after almost four years, Miss Ranskill discovers that it's not the England she left behind: in her absence, World War II has begun..
This may all sound very far-fetched, but Todd actually makes it seem believable. I thought the whole idea of someone being cut off from the world and returning home only to find themselves suddenly thrown into the middle of a war was absolutely fascinating. I particularly enjoyed the first half of the book which deals with the first few days of Miss Ranskill's arrival in England, when everything feels strange and surreal. Even the English language seems different and full of unfamiliar words. When she tries to buy food she can't understand why she's asked for her 'ration book', or why she needs 'coupons' to purchase clothes. This leads to some very amusing situations but at the same time you can't help but feel sorry for poor Miss Ranskill.
Although he's dead before the story even begins, the strongest character in the book is the Carpenter. He is constantly in Miss Ranskill's thoughts and his presence is there on almost every page in the form of flashbacks and memories. His optimism and words of wisdom had helped to sustain Miss Ranskill during her time on the island and continue to give her comfort on her return to wartime Britain.
However, the years on the island and the company of the Carpenter have given her a new outlook on life and she finds it difficult to adjust. Unlike her friends and family who are all absorbed in their war work, Miss Ranskill feels detached from what's going on and spends most of the book remembering the island and even feeling nostalgic about the fact that she had to eat fish for every meal and wear the same clothes for nearly four years! England may have changed, but Miss Ranskill has changed even more.
This book has the perfect blend of humour and poignancy and gives us an opportunity to explore World War II from a unique perspective. ...more
Little Boy Lost is the second book I've read by Marghanita Laski - the first was The Victorian Chaise-Longue. However, I found the two books entirelyLittle Boy Lost is the second book I've read by Marghanita Laski - the first was The Victorian Chaise-Longue. However, I found the two books entirely different. This one was far more emotional and a more gripping, compelling read.
It's Christmas Day, 1943, when Hilary Wainwright first learns that his son has been lost. He had seen baby John only once - a brief glimpse of a little red face with dark hair poking out of a bundle of blankets. Then, while Hilary was away, his wife, Lisa, was killed by the Gestapo in Paris and their little boy disappeared almost without trace. When the war is over, Hilary goes back to France and with the help of his friend, Pierre, he begins to follow a trail which he hopes will lead him to his lost son.
Laski does an excellent job of portraying the conflicting emotions Hilary experiences, torn between longing to be reunited with his son and worrying that if he does find him he might not want him. All through the book I was guessing what might happen - it wasn't really obvious what the outcome would be and I could think of several different possibilities, some good and some bad.
The descriptions of post-war France are so vivid: the bomb-damaged buildings, the poverty, the food shortages - unless you were rich enough to take advantage of the black market, of course. And I was shocked by the descriptions of the conditions in the orphanages. As well as there not being enough to eat and drink, and a complete lack of any toys or games, it was chilling to think of children with tuberculosis living alongside the healthy ones.
Although I was trying to avoid hearing too much about this book before I read it, I knew it was supposed to become very nerve-wracking and suspenseful towards the end. Well, I can tell you that this is definitely true! There are so many great books that are let down by a weak ending, but this is certainly not one of them. The tension throughout the final few chapters was nearly unbearable, so much so that I was almost afraid to reach the end. And I imagine most readers, like I did, will have tears in their eyes when they reach the very last sentence.
Nicholas Lezard of The Guardian, who is quoted on the back cover, says it best: "If you like a novel that expertly puts you through the wringer, this is the one." ...more