The Postmistress of Paris by Meg Waite Clayton
This is an absolutely enthralling historical novel based on a true heroine of the Second World War, an American heiress living in France. In this novel, Nanee is a young woman who enjoys flying her own plane, enjoying her substantial inherited fortune in France following the death of her much loved father, and the company of her dog Dagobert. She lives alone and has many friends, especially among the artistic community of Paris, which has recently increased owing to the political unrest in Germany as Hitler sweeps to power. Her choice to remain in France as the War comes closer reflects what many other foreign nationals did for various reasons, but it soon becomes obvious that she will stay to help, to make a difference to those who have real need and few if any choices. Based on the very real Mary Jayne Gold who worked with a journalist, Varian Fry, to smuggle refugees from France, this novel puts Nanee in a fictional context with others who are involved in the dangerous process, where discovery could lead to arrest and worse. Edouard Moss is a young photographer who has already escaped from Germany as an artist and a Jew, bringing his daughter, the remarkable Luki. Edouard has damaging memories to contend with, mainly relating to his late wife, and is hugely concerned with Luki’s well being. Her child- like view of what is happening, shaped by her precious toy kangaroo, is a constant element of the book, and I thought it was very well written. This is a very atmospheric book, well written and involving, and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it.
The book opens in January 1938 with an incident when Nanee is flying; she risks an accident in order to save a black swan. This is an important theme, her willingness to risk everything to save others. When she attends a party she encounters Surrealist artists, but is especially moved by Edouard and his relationship with his small daughter. As the War draws nearer, Edouard and Luki travel to a quiet village, where he hopes to develop his negatives and keep well away from trouble. However, life is not that simple in the face of invasion and occupation, and it seems no one is safe. Nancee is soon aware of those around her who are in trouble for their nationality and creative record. While she hopes to stay in France, she makes every effort to help those who are trying to flee to safety. In time she feels challenged to use her money to help finance a rescue operation working on the edges of legality. It is far from easy or safe work, especially when she becomes the “Postmistress”, delivering messages to those desperate for news. The people who she works with, whether real or fictional, are so well drawn, and the sense of threat permeates the narrative.
This book is so well researched that there is a firm basis for the book; it feels so firmly based yet never bogged down by details. The characters flow in their feeling of reality, sometimes negative, aggressive, dismissive, but also optimistic, thoughtful and resourceful. The character of Luki, a small girl physically but huge in her impact on the narrative, really lifts the book from beginning to end, as she struggles to understand what is going on in a situation which the adults around her are finding nearly impossible. I thoroughly recommend this book for its atmosphere, its story, and most of all its well established, consistent characters.