Jan 19, 2012

Postcards From No Man’s Land by Aidan Chambers

Postcards from No Man’s Land by Aidan Chambers

Postcards From No Man’s Land tells a story through two interconnected plotlines that take place five decades apart (sorry Jodie; I can’t help but love this narrative structure): one, set in the present day, focuses on seventeen-year-old Jacob Todd; the other, set during the occupation of The Netherlands during WW2, follows Geertrui, who is a teenager herself at the time of the conflict. Jacob Todd is visiting Amsterdam to attend a ceremony marking the anniversary of the Battle of Arnhem, where his grandfather fought. While there, he stays with the family of the woman who looked after his grandfather when he was first wounded. That woman is Geertrui, who is now in her old age – and who tells a story that makes Jacob reconsider everything he has always believed about his family.

I picked up Postcards From No Man’s Land because it’s the only book to have won both the Carnegie Medal and the Printz Award to date. A quick glance at the synopsis is likely to remind readers of another Carnegie winner, Mal Peet’s Tamar, which uses the same kind of narrative structure and covers similar terrain. Both are excellent novels, by the way, and despite the superficial similarities they go on to do very different things.

There were a lot of elements in this novel that I instantly loved: the Amsterdam setting and the fact that the city becomes almost a character in its own right; the focus on the Hunger Winter and the occupied Netherlands, which are aspects of WW2 that don’t seem to pop up in historical novels anywhere near as often as, say, the London Blitz; the many references to books and reading, particularly to Anne Frank’s diary. I imagine that most readers will be able to relate to Jacob’s intimate connection to the diary, regardless of how they feel about this book in particular. “‘I do feel as if I know [Anne] better than anyone else,’” Jacob says at one point. “‘I mean, better than any of my family or friends.’”

There’s a scene in particular that I loved, about Jacob’s visit to the secret annex. It really reminded me of my experience at the Brontë Parsonage last year – it does such a great job of capturing what often happens when this sense of intimacy with a book or author confronts the real world. This is the conversation Jacob has afterwards with Alma, an older woman he befriends in Amsterdam:
‘…It seemed like waiting to see the two-headed man or the bearded lady at a fun fair. And when I got inside, people ahead of me, people behind me, all of us tramping up the stairs in to the rooms. Into her rooms. Which were crowded with people already, everyone kind of gawping and shuffling along. They weren’t behaving badly. Just the opposite. Quite reverential really, quite silent, not talking, just whispering, and pointing and peering. I don’t know. It just came over me that we were invading Anne’s privacy. Treading all over her. But apart from that, the really stupid thing…’
‘Seems ridiculous. But, seeing all those people, and most of them about my age, all of us like pilgrims, visiting a shrine, well, suddenly Anne wasn’t mine anymore.’
‘Not yours?’
‘No. Here were all these other people who wanted to be where she had lived. Where she had written her diary. And I said to myself, “They think she’s theirs too.”’
I suspect I might have loved Postcards From No Man’s Land for this scene alone, but there was plenty more to enjoy. For example, Chambers has his characters discuss everything from euthanasia, polyamory, or sexual orientation to war and art history (particularly Rembrandt and his relationship with his son). These discussions could easily have been very after school special, but, impressively, they were not. They felt completely organic to the plot and relevant to what Jacob and his new friends were experiencing.

Also, Postcards From No Man’s Land is the first YA novel (or perhaps novel, period) I’ve come across that includes polyamorous characters (I’m not counting polygamy novels, since the dynamics are so completely different). This is good news for my fellow blogger Trisha, who a while ago, while wishing for love triangles to die a horrible death already, expressed her bafflement that entire pockets of human experience, including relationship arrangements that are real and functional for many people, remain to this day almost completely invisible in fiction. This is a bafflement I share, as I would like for my fiction to deal with All The Human Things

(Though I must say I retract the offer I made in Trisha’s comments to post a vlog of myself doing cartwheels the day I found these experiences represented. I’m not that brave, and my offer only goes to show how much I didn’t expect to find a novel like this anytime soon. Who knew one had been hiding in plain sight all along, on the Printz and Carnegie Medal winners lists?)

Thinking of this puts me in mind of Brooke Gladstone’s doughnut analogy in her excellent The Influencing Machine. She suggests that the space outside this metaphorical doughnut represents all the things the media treats as no-go areas at a given moment in history; the ideas and perspectives that it doesn’t even occur to most people to consider. But I’m getting ahead of myself; I’ll return to The Influencing Machine and to this idea next week. I should of course add that Postcards From No Man’s Land considers Daan, Ton, and their choices thoughtfully, since I do believe that how representation is handled is every bit as important as the inclusion of minority characters itself. The novel also includes what I thought was a great representation of bisexuality – the narrative treats it as more than fence-sitting or transitory confusion, which is unfortunately all too common. Jacob’s bisexuality is not something he needs to make up his mind about, but something that simply is.

I’ve been going on about Jacob, but it was actually Geertrui’s narrative that really won my heart. Unlike Jacob’s, Gertruui’s story is told in the first person (in case you’re picky about these things, the framing of her narration is eventually explained). Chambers explains in the afterword to my edition that he wanted readers to feel closer to Geertrui than to Jacob, and that’s exactly how it worked for me. I thought this was an interesting choice, considering the historical context of each narrative. By making the past feel closer than the present, this narrative choice supports the points the novel makes in other ways about the nature of memory; about experiencing moments of such intensity that they stay with you for the rest of your life.

Finally, although Postcards From No Man’s Land is never explicit, it’s brilliant at getting across the strength and sheer dizzying power of first sexual passion. Plus it does this in a way that readily acknowledges female subjectivity, agency and desire, which is something I’ll never tire of seeing in YA.

Interesting bits:
The old often say they remember their youth more clearly than the day before yesterday. But this is not it. I know these things because those few days and the few weeks that followed them were such an intensity of living, so much more than any other time of my life, that they are unforgettable. And I have gone over and over them ever since. Sometimes you live more life in an hour than in most weeks, and sometimes it is possible to live more in a few weeks than in all the rest of your life. This is what those days in 1944 are like to me.

What a need we humans have for confession. To a priest, to a friend, to a psychoanalyst, to a relative, to an enemy, even to a torturer when there is no one else, it doesn’t matter so long as we speak out what moves within us. Even the most secretive of us do it, if no more than writing in a private diary. And I have often thought when I read stories and novels and poems, especially poems, that they are no more than the authors’ confessions transformed by art into something that confesses for us all. Indeed, looking back on my lifelong passion for reading, the one activity that has kept me going and given me the most and only lasting pleasure, I think this is the reason that explains why it means so much too me. The books, the authors who matter the most are those who speak to me and speak for me all those things about life I most need to hear as the confession of myself.
(Much to my surprise, I could find no other blog reviews of this book. If you have one, let me know and I’ll be happy to link to you.)

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.


  1. Well you know I'm not a huge historical fiction or war-related fiction reader, so this book might not work for me, but I do think it's interesting that it includes different romance elements than usual, and I think you should do cartwheels anyway. :D Even if not for a vlog.

  2. I don't read much WW2 historical fiction, not sure why that is, but the characters in this one sound really wonderful.

  3. Have you read This Is All? One of my favorite books ever. I did have this one, along with all the others but didn't enjoy them and got read of them years ago. A shame, as I suspect now I would have enjoyed them a lot!

  4. This does sound good and I know it's a big favourite of many, but still, multiple time lines *suspicious*. For years I kept positive about that device, because, it's just such a me device (history yay, but also people whose lives still have the possibility to develop because they live in the present, hurrah). But I've read a lot of novels that proved to me that this is a well hard structuring method to use, because so many authors use it so badly/as a default when a novel doesn't need it. Still, will stop ranting and adds cautiously to TBR.

    Oh and polyamarous relationships...hey have you heard of this book called The Broken Kingdoms *whistles*. It's the tiniest element, but it's there and the characters are happy. I guess the further discussion of the gods three way relationship, is also line of polyamarous investigation? Pretty much any head canon I think up involves polyamarous slash somewhere along the way (because I am bad at making decisions and hate conflict break ups).

  5. Amanda: Private cartwheels are definitely being considered :P

    Amy: I read almost too much of it for a few years, but not so much in recent times. I liked this one for the unique angle.

    Amy: Not yet - this was my first time reading Chambers, but I definitely want to read more of his work.

    Jodie: Rant away :D I'm sure you have many good readings for having gotten tired of this structure. I've been lucky so far, I guess, since my experiences with it have been mostly good ones. I should add that I wrote most of this review before reading Jemisin, so I wasn't thinking of her when I said "only novel I can think of". I'm excited that there will be more of that in the second book :D Hm, and I've just realised that I also forgot Fledgling by Octavia Butler, which I can't remember if you've read or not *stalks your archives*

  6. Argh. That should have been "many good REASONS".

  7. you know I think I might have this book. I'll have to check. Your review makes me really curious about it though! And I like this narrative structure too...I mean not always but often.

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  9. I love Aidan Chambers and I'm so glad I have this on my TBR. It sounds fantastic. I also agree with Amy @ Turn the Page's comment: This is All was my first Chambers book and it's huuuge, but it's really good and is one of my favourite books ever.

  10. I admit I'm starting to get bored with dual time frame novels, but that's just because I've read so many of them recently. It sounds like the structure works very well in this book though. And I agree that it's good to read about different aspects of WW2 that aren't covered in fiction very often.

  11. I've not had good luck with novels that have interconnected plot lines that are decades apart. This book seems to break the mold of the others I have read in that both story lines are equally enjoyable and viable and not just a gimmick that the writer used. I'm adding this to my list.

  12. The city of Amsterdam almost as a character of its own sounds totally intriguing.

    My library is actually going to have a visiting exhibition from the Anne Frank House next month!The exhibition will through the story of Anne Frank touch the subjects of discrimination, prejudice and human rights from WWII to today. I'm really looking forward to seeing the exhibition! Here's a link to some info, if you want to take a look: http://tinyurl.com/8yh6dfo

  13. I have read Fledgling - good remembering about the relationships in that.

  14. OMG--this sounds so fucking good!!! And now I'm feeling a bit annoyed with myself for having already packed it up. :( (Not that I'll likely even finish all the books I have started before we move, but I'm irked that I now don't have the option, you know.)

    Ummm...do you really think it's nice to renege on your promises like that? Maybe to make it up to us, you could just do a regular old vlog with no cartwheels involved??? *begs profusely* *then sadly accepts defeat*

  15. This is most definitely going on my wish list!!!!! And I still think the cartwheel vlog should exist.... :)

  16. I have read at least one other book with polyamory, but for the life of me I can't remember what it was.

    Then there's always The Bachelor, of course. :P

  17. This sounds interesting. I am going to add it to my wish list. :)

  18. I've had this one on my shelf for forever, because it's a Printz winner. And your lovely review has convinced me that I need to dust it off and read it.

  19. I skipped over your review right down here to the comments - because this one is on my bookshelf and you've prompted me to move it up the TBR list. Once i'm done I'll come back and compare notes :)

  20. Ahhh, this sounds perfect! Although I have read numerous books set in the Netherlands during the war (I have this *thing* against the setting because it's such an endless story when you're in high school in almost every class). But this sounds interesting despite the familiarity of the setting, exactly because it sounds like such a fresh approach, and not something that is a 100% centred on it. Definitely going on my wishlist. Thank you for reviewing it!

  21. "The books, the authors who matter the most are those who speak to me and speak for me all those things about life I most need to hear as the confession of myself" – wow. Your review, plus this quote, just won me over. Have to get my hands on this one!

  22. I was tickled to see you reviewing two of my very, very favorite--and such different sorts--of books in a row! The Prestige must have made quite a strange chaser after Postcards From No Man's Land.

    I came back to this post wondering if (and kind of expecting) you'd have got comments by a bunch of longtime fans of this book by now. Huh. Like you, I'm surprised there aren't other blog reviews, and I'm baffled as to why U.S. publishers have been so slow to take up Chambers' books! So far I've got my hands on three. Postcards is the best, but the Toll Bridge is really good too. All I can think is that maybe U.S. editors fear American teens will be scared off by the not-strictly-contemporaneous setting of Chambers' YA characters, which means two potentially "distancing" layers of history: both by the no-personal-information-devices and not-much-internet recent history, and by that sense of generational history that gives his stories such emotional depth!


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