Postcards from No Man’s Land (by Aidan Chambers)

14 02 2012

There are not that many writers of YA books who already wrote back in the day when the cat was part of the target audience for YA and who are still publishing today. Aidan Chambers is an exception. The cat still fondly remembers Dance on my Grave, published for the first time in 1982 (!), the second book in what would become Chambers’ Dance Sequence (the first of which was published in 1978, the last of which was published in 2005), about a boy and the events that led him to dance on the grave of his friend. The cat didn’t realize it at the time, of course, but it was one of the first books she read that was published for children and young adults in which homosexuality was treated in a respectful way… it was a issues book, yes, but superseded by the fact that it was first of all a moving story, something the teen cat went all mushy for.

Postcards from No Man’s Land is the 5th in the Dance Sequence, and deals with a different aspect of Love and a different sequence in  the dance called Growing Up, focusing much more on literal boundaries than any of the other Dance Sequence books. In Postcards we encounter Jacob Todd, a 17-year-old boy who visits Amsterdam in honor of the battle of Arnhem, in which his grandfather and namesake Jacob fought during World War II. Jacob – the grandfather – was saved and taken in by a Dutch family, the same family that Jacob, the grandson, is now also visiting. Interwoven in the wanderings of Jacob in Amsterdam, is the book within the book: the one that Geertrui, the woman who saved his grandfather, but who is now terminally ill, wrote about the time she spent with him (Jacob the grandfather).

Postcards from No Man’s Land is a book with obvious literary ambitions and merits: it weaves and spins; it juxtaposes and compares. Note for instance the way in which Chambers is able to use a specific literary voice for Geertrui’s writing, and a different 3rd person narrative for Jacob’s. Yes, this is kind of impressive. The can see the appeal something like that must have had for the Printz committee on the lookout for ‘literary excellence’… It’s undoubtedly also a captivating read for anyone who’s interested in World War II and the effect this had on average people in the numerous villages and towns in The Netherlands affected by the German occupation. At the same time you get a pretty good impression of contemporary Amsterdam and the many transient and coincidental encounters you can have in a city like Amsterdam. Moreover, there’s Jacob’s present-day quest for identity which leads him to (re)think the image he had of his grandfather and of himself. Aidan Chambers shows how adept he is in linking the personal to the universal when he asks questions about identity and history; desire and love; life and death… there’s definitely a bit for everyone here.

And yet… for some reason, the cat couldn’t find the emotional connect to really like this book in the way that she remembers loving Dance on My Grave. It might all be in the mind and in the ‘remembrance of things’, of course, but Dance on My Grave seemed to have this (yes) almost obsessive urgency to it, which this book just doesn’t have.  I mean, the cat liked Postcards from No Man’s Land, it’s definitely a good book, but it never surprised her in a way that you hope a book will. It doesn’t stand out when compared to other great (Historical) novels. If World War II is your thing, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, for instance, is a far more interesting read. In any case, Postcards from No Man’s Land is decent Historical Fiction About World War II with clear Literary Ambitions and a Universal Message of Openness and Hope. If that’s your thing, go for it…

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