A Postcard from a Volcano

A novel that explores pre-war Germany... and beyond

(photo: Register Files)

Recently, I found myself “between books,” which in my world means there are plenty of books to read and no shortage of choices and yet — AND YET — nothing looks good.

I’m overcome. I can’t decide. I JUST WANT A GOOD BOOK, PLEASE.

And so, I did what I do: I played book-choosing roulette on my Kindle and Beckett’s 2009 novel, A Postcard from a Volcano, came up.

It’s not short. It’s not easy.

But it is excellent.

It’s like that cognac (or was it single malt whiskey?) that my uncle favors: You don’t gulp. You savor.

Postcard, as it happens (and as I only just discovered as I was writing this review) is the sequel to Beckett’s 2014 novel The Leaves Are Falling. I read it and loved it for all the reasons I loved Postcard.

And now I want to reread it.

(I just don’t have time for that. Isn’t that a delightful problem to have? Indeed it is.)

Beckett is a masterful storyteller, who crafts her fiction in a way that feels both intentional and delightful. Sometimes, you don’t have to know all the work that goes in to enjoy the end result.

In the last few years, World War II novels have increased in popularity. I first noticed it when my 12-year-old mentioned how she loves books set in that era. Given that she’s not much of a fan of reading, I took note.

Then, earlier this year, a friend mentioned that I should read The Nighingale, by Kristin Hannah. What followed was a four-day reading adventure that had me staying up late and dreaming of characters and trying to figure out what was next.

Compare that, then, to the many hours I spent invested in Max von Hofmannswaldau. I didn’t stay up late, because there wasn’t a pressing plot point or a German gun set to my hero’s head. But I was immersed in post-war (and pre-war) Germany in a way I hadn’t been during Hannah’s writing.

Oh, don’t get me wrong: If you haven’t read The Nightingale, go. It’s good. And while I gave it five stars (and would give those stars again), it’s a different type of book altogether than Postcard, even though they are set in similar times.

For one thing, Postcard is unabashedly long. It’s not fast-paced. It’s not plot-driven. There’s a plot. But this is a character story, one that takes its time. It’s the kind of book that would have been condensed into a shorter form, the kind of book my high school self would have curled up with excitedly even as all the other kids I knew would have rolled their eyes and taken off running.

It’s the difference between whipping through Agatha Christie and being led through The Count of Monte Cristo

Beckett has captured more than the essence of pre-WW2 Germany; she has taken you there. I never appreciated how different that part of the world was, how it was shaped by various mentalities and politics and realms. If I had learned it, I didn’t fully picture it as the difference between a northern Ohio county and a southern Louisiana parish. We’re all one country…now.

There’s much to learn from this time period and the way the politics and viewpoints were influenced. I was halfway through before I realized it was a novel about conversion. Except…no it wasn’t! Yes, it was!

Isn’t that life, though? Conversion is everywhere. And while it’s certainly important and critical and probably the point of everything, it’s also very much in the background and inevitable.

I found myself, with Max, assaulted by the idiocy of people, weak at the idea of the injustices, horrified by the fact that yes, this was really going to happen. 

We need this. How have I never appreciated how much we need the stories of history? History was not taught to me as a story, and I never appreciated it as such until I was far from my school days. Now, however, I want to embrace it, to share it, to learn and teach it.

Beckett’s writing does that, and it does it in a way that is nothing short of beautiful. She commands the language and she commands the setting. Her characters breathe, and in that breath, they make history alive.