Postcards from No Man’s Land by Aiden Chambers

  • Title: Postcards from No Man’s Land
  • Author: Aiden Chambers
  • Publisher: The Bodley Head (UK)
  • Year Published: 1999
  • ISBN: 0142401455
  • List Price: $8.99 (PB)
  • Page Count: 336
  • Age Range: 13+
  • Genre: historical fiction
  • Award(s): Printz Award Winner; Carnegie Medal Winner

Author information: Aiden Chambers is a British author who has written more than a dozen books for youth.  In 2002, he won the Hans Christian Andersen Award for his “lasting contribution to children’s literature”. His website contains an extensive personal biography, FAQs, links to all of his books, short stories, plays, and critical analyses. It also includes current news about the author and his books, such as release dates and the launch of his new iPad app, Tablet Tales.

Reviews: The Horn Book, Kirkus Reviews, Publisher’s Weekly, and Booklist all gave this title starred reviews. All of these reviews (which can be found on Chambers’ website), applaud Postcards for its mature themes and nuanced writing. All of these reviews also discussed the complexity of Jacob’s character and how his struggles and self-discovery can provoke the reader to examine his own life and what he believes to be true about the world. Booklist says that “Chambers weaves together past and present with enough plot, characters, and ideas for several YA books, but he does it with such mastery that all the pieces finally come together, imparting compelling discoveries about love, courage, family, and sexual identity”.

Readers annotation: Jacob discovers more than he bargained for when he travels to Amsterdam to learn about his grandfather’s life and death during WWII.

Summary: Jacob is a seventeen year old who travels to the Netherlands to attend a commemoration ceremony for his grandfather who died during World War II as well as to meet the woman who cared for him after he was injured in the war. He arrives and feels out of place, but with the kindness of the strangers he meets and gets to know, he begins to fall in love with Amsterdam and discover more about who he is in the process. Interspersed with Jacob’s story is a narrative in the voice of Geertrui, Jacob’s grandfather’s protector and later lover. She cares for Jacob the elder and nurses him back to health after a leg wound, and, at great risk to herself and her family, hides Jacob from the Germans who would take him prisoner or kill him if he were discovered. Geertrui and Jacob’s relationship evolves over the months they know each other, and they fall in love. Jacob impregnates Geertrui, but dies of a heart attack without knowing this fact. Jacob the younger is confronted with all of this information in the form of a written account that Geertrui gives to him a few days before she ends her life with euthanasia. Jacob the younger has to grapple with the implications of this confession and how it changes his identity and his family history.

Evaluation: Although this book has been critically acclaimed, it did not resonate with me at all. The characters were flat and unsympathetic; Geertrui speaks only of her love for Jacob, who she only knew for a few months, and spends little time letting the reader get to know her as a character outside of this relationship. Jacob may be even less substantial. He mopes around Amsterdam, having philosophical conversations with every stranger he meets and functions far too much like a cerebral placeholder than a real person that a reader could sympathize with. The plot, as well, seems as if it is trying to tackle too many subjects at once:  World War II and relationships during wartime, illegitimate children and families, LGBT themes, and euthanasia among others. These stretched the plot too thin and the reader is left feeling unsatisfied with some of the pat resolutions that occur, such as Jacob the elder’s convenient yet non-violent death and Jacob the younger’s first sexual experience upon which the novel ends. If the characters were well-formed and compelling, these plot sequences could be overlooked, but by the end of the novel I simply did not care about what happened in the world Chambers had built. The one redeeming feature of this novel is the fact that it looked at difficult subject matter and presented interesting philosophical and moral questions for the reader to consider, often discussed at length among the characters. These thematic ideas seem to be the driving force behind the novel, but the plot and characters could not carry their weight.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 4/5  Although I personally was not impressed with this novel, based on the abundance of positive reviews it seems that I am in a minority. Areas of the novel which I felt were weaknesses–flimsy characterization, overwrought plot devices, limp dialogue–were hailed as the major triumphs of the novel, which causes me to give this title a higher score than I would subjectively choose.
  • Popularity2/5  The description and presentation of the book do it no favors when it comes to attracting readers; the cover and back copy make the novel sound dry and cerebral. Some readers who do choose to start this novel may easily be put off by the meandering plot and pedantic philosophizing of the characters. However, readers who enjoy grappling with a variety of complex ideas and themes may find this book to be a perfect fit.
  • Appeal factors: philosophical and moral questions, coming-of-age, World War II, dual narrative perspectives, LGBT.

Read-alikes: The strength of this book is in its ideas and themes, so start the book talk by listing some of these concepts–honesty, identity, memory, love–and ask readers to talk about what comes to mind when hearing these words. Perhaps read a passage from the book on one of these subjects, such as Geertrui’s reflection on the nature of confession. Sell this book as a thought-provoking journey of self-discovery that explores a variety of mature themes.

  1. For readers who were intrigued by a young man revisiting his grandfather’s past Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer is a beautiful and satisfying read. Jonathan, the main character, goes on a journey to discover more about his grandfather’s life during the war, and discovers secrets about his family, his past, and himself that will remind readers of Postcards. 

Book talk ideas: Because this novel has strong and complex ideas, a good way to start would be to choose one of them and have potential readers discuss their feelings. One example could be adultery during war–have teens talk about their feelings about right or wrong or the complexities a situation such as this may present. Afterwards, give a brief summary of the book and the type of thematic ideas that discussed within, and challenge the teens to read the book and see if it changes their initial feelings. Other topics could include euthanasia, the importance of honesty, or self-discovery.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. “He thought: How difficult it is to explain yourself to yourself. Sometimes there only is, and no knowing.”  What does this quote mean to you?
  2. Do you think Jacob’s grandfather was as wonderful and Geertrui and Sarah both say? In what way does tragedy shape our memories and rewrite the past? If Jacob had lived, he would have left one woman devastated and one child fatherless–how would this change his legacy and what do you think he would have chosen to do?
  3. How important is it to know the truth? If you were in Jacob’s position at the end of the novel, what would you tell Sarah?

Reason for reading: I read this novel because, when searching for read alikes for Code Name Verity, this novel showed up as a near match. Because I enjoyed Verity so much, I read a summary of Postcards to see if it would interest me. The description made the novel sound very much like Everything is Illuminated, which is one of my favorite books, so I was sold. I don’t regret reading it even though I didn’t enjoy it, but this is not the type of book I would recommend to any but the most serious and cerebral of readers.

Additional relevant information: Aiden Chambers was a novice in the Anglican church and had planned to be a monk. His life reached a crossroads when he realized he could not be both a monk and an author, and his desire to write took precedence over his waning faith.

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