|Postcards from No Man's Land|
Sara O'Reilly in Time Out 12-19 July 2000
If my daughter ever comes to me for advice about men, I'm planning to point her in the direction of those who read novels. My experience has been they are more likely to be able to communicate their emotions and less inclined to regard change as alarming - and I'm aware that pretty much everything I understand about anything has been delivered as the by-product of a story. So when Aidan Chambers, who has just won the Carnegie Medal […], states that 'The function of literary art is that it doesn't just give you information; it gives you the wherewithal to be wise about it,' everything falls in place.
Chambers acknowledges that 'the whole culture, every culture, works on stories,' but, he insists, in literary fiction the story should be the medium, not the message: 'the great quality of the novel is that it's about the exploration of consciousness; that's what it really does, more than any other art form.' In Postcards the consciousness that Chambers is investigating is that of a seventeen-year-old encountering a whole raft of ideas and emotions for the first time. He does so through two separate rite-of-passage stories in which the events, relationships and emotions are intricately interwoven. Geertrui, a dying Dutchwoman, recalls in vivid detail her brief, intense love for the English airman her family helped when he was wounded during the battle of Arnhem. The second story is that of seventeen-year-old Jacob, visiting Amsterdam to attend a ceremony in commemoration of the 51st anniversary of the battle. He is like a branch whittled down to the raw, vulnerable green, experiencing everything so intensely that it is almost unbearable.
As the stories, both equally absorbing, unfold and the complicated connection between the two protagonists emerges, the reader encounters many of the issues that loom large for adolescents: a sexuality that shifts from burgeoning to all-consuming with confusing rapidity, the importance of friends and family, of art and poetry and, above all, the need to fathom the slippery, shifting, subtle nature of love. Jacob arrives in Amsterdam in love with Anne Frank, whose diary he knows, in parts, by heart. By the time he's ready to go home he's fallen for a boy, a girl and a city. The postcards of the title refer to a loving ritual in which Jacob's adored grandmother sends him a brief, pertinent message every single week and to the quotations at the start of each of Jacob's episodes in the book. The wartime chapters have no such introduction; the emotional minefield of adolescence can seem more perilous than the physical one of war, just as death, for some, holds less terror than despair.
A major theme tackled in Postcards is the question of euthanasia, or assisted death as it is termed in Holland, where the issue has been subject to vigorous debate in the forthright fashion that comes naturally to the Dutch. According to Chambers, Dutch teenagers are as familiar with, and in some cases as blasé about, discussion of death as they are with sex education. In the UK, where we're not entirely sure that we even want to talk to kids about sex, death remains a taboo subject, unless it's part of a religious education and we do little or nothing to prepare children for the emotional, spiritual or practical impact of death. Adamant that he would sooner die with dignity than live without his wits, Chambers would like to see that change.
Chambers is now 65. The voice and the sensibility that speaks through his books is that of his seventeen-year-old self, but it is, inevitably, informed by a life that has encompassed seven years as a monk, time as a teacher and setting up with his wife Nancy, The Thimble Press, which publishes Signal, a critical journal devoted to children's books. He has written five books in this voice; a sixth is currently at bubbling-away stage. That, says Chambers, will be the last of a series that has occupied him for more than 25 years in which he has explored what it is like to experience the big things in life for the first time [consciously]. Next, granted the time and the energy, he plans to move on to what he describes as his 'old man's books,' in which he will examine the same questions from new perspectives.
The novels that Chambers enjoys are rich and generous, giving him more than he asked for so that he can return to them again and again. He likes thought-provoking stories that play with language and are full of ideas. He may have abandoned Anglicanism, but he is a man who does as he would be done by, and Postcards from No Man's Land is an abundantly generous literary novel, a deserving Carnegie winner and a moving, engrossing read for anyone over 14.