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'The Postmistress' delivers a tale of women and war

THE POSTMISTRESS, by Sarah Blake. Amy Einhorn/

Putnam, 322 pp., $25.95.

In her second novel, Sarah Blake seems as much director as author. Her characters stride across the screen in 1940s costume, flatteringly lit. Their personalities are wonderfully distinct and accessible, each with a different set of defenses and vulnerabilities. You're a hardhearted reader, indeed, if you can get to the last page without a lump in your throat. If you're very quiet, you can almost hear the soundtrack.

"The Postmistress" is camera-ready, but there's much to enjoy about it as a book first. Blake's premise is simple. Iris James, the spinster postmistress of a remote Cape Cod village, believes in Order above all things: "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."

But it's 1940, and chaos is literally over the horizon. Harry Vale, the Great War vet who runs the garage, spends every free moment scanning the water for German U-boats, waiting for them "as the stern man jigs for cod," but he is a minority of one, despite the voice of intrepid "radio gal" Frankie Bard in every cottage, reporting on the Blitz. Her words inspire the town doctor, Will Fitch, to leave his practice and his young bride for London, where he submerges his self-doubt in the thrilling single-mindedness of war work. Pregnant Emma is left to wait under the watchful eye of Iris, through whose hands the life of the town passes.

It's Frankie's voice that introduces the story decades after the fact, an elderly Frankie who bridles whenever someone tosses off "some idiotic remark about clarity and purpose" in reference to the Second World War. Her war, bookended by the bombing of her London flat and the voices she recorded of desperate Jews fleeing across Europe, was surreal, impossible to process. "There was no shape for details like that. Shape was the novelist's lie." Blake proceeds to tell a sort of anti-fairy tale, where all the princesses find themselves alone in the end. No happily ever after, but still a lot more narrative shape than real war stories allow.

"The Postmistress" is about delivering the news, whether in an envelope or a radio broadcast, and as its heroines discover, reporting the truth is not as straightforward as we want to believe. There's a bit too much rhetoric in this vein, as Blake walks us through the journalist's credo that initially motivates Frankie. Her boss Edward R. Murrow's three questions - "What is happening? How does it affect Americans? What does the Common Man say?" - seem insufficient to the shadowy enormity of what is happening to the Jews of Europe. "Pay attention," she thinks, "and then write like hell." But crowded onto a train full of doomed refugees, helplessly listening to their stories, Frankie finds even that an impossibility.

All this is a little ponderous, and Frankie herself is a caricature of swashbuckling savvy a la Katharine Hepburn. The smaller, more intimate scenes on Cape Cod make a bigger impression. Away from the cinematic distraction of the war, Blake's talent for quirky characterization emerges. Iris is a wonder of understatement, a priestess of the post office and all its comforting details, who puts "more stock in words set down on a clean white piece of paper than any sort of talk." Her unlikely romance with Harry Vale unfolds with a steady sweetness that avoids the saccharine and provides narrative ballast for the quietly rising hysteria of Emma, once an orphan and now perhaps a widow, "like a balloon at the end of a longer and longer string, held by no one." Except for Iris, who stuns herself by pocketing a letter with Emma's name on it, and Frankie, who has a letter for Emma as well.

Blake nicely captures the suspended moment in America when the war is still happening to other people far away, when the swish of a beautiful woman's skirt in the bar of Grand Central Station draws more attention than anything in Europe. "How easily the face of the world turns away," Frankie muses, staring incredulously upon her return.

In the end Blake's repeated lesson - that there is no satisfying master truth, that stories turn on mistakes and chance omissions, and we don't always get to hear the end - blunts the sharply defined edges of her characters, forcing them to be archetypes rather than people. They end up larger than life - like actors on a screen.

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