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postcards from no man's land

1 march 2012

Postcards from No Man's Land is one of the most honored and critically-acclaimed Young Adult novels ever published. It is certainly also one of the more ambitious and wide-ranging, with significant claims to being a novel of ideas that doesn't skimp on action or realistic characterization. Above all, it doesn't patronize its readers. It shares rhetorical and cultural work with many other contemporary YA fictions, but it's not heavy-handed: it allows that work to surface via plausible people in extreme (but realistic) situations.

Postcards from No Man's Land is complicated, but no more so than many a summer movie. Two main strands of narrative intertwine. It's 1995. A Dutch woman named Geertrui tells what happened to her in the last year of the second world war, a half-century earlier. Meanwhile, a young Englishman named Jacob navigates the treacherous tourist terrain of Amsterdam. Jacob is trying to find himself:

What was his natural self? And what did "natural" mean? He wished he knew. . . . Thirty hours—only thirty!—in this foreign country had begun to strip away from him, like peeling off a protective skin, the few certainties he thought he knew about himself, leaving him disorientated and displaced. (109-110)
Jacob's family is dysfunctional; he's been shuttled from relative to relative, without a true home. As he searches for his place in the world, psychically and physically, his family situation is fixing to get considerably less functional. Geertrui has summoned Jacob to Holland to tell him some secrets about her relationship with his grandfather – also named Jacob – who died during the costly British campaign to liberate the Netherlands from Nazi occupation.

Some of Jacob's stay in Holland becomes a little traveloguey. One episode is literally a tour of some Amsterdam sights that reminded me, bizarrely, of a similar tour sequence in Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates. There's a lot of cultural and linguistic misapprehension. But it's handled in a way that feels natural. Chambers conveys polyglot, just-missing-the-mark conversations deftly. He works them into the texture of Jacob's self-discovery. Jacob is unsure of his sexuality and his family allegiances. He needs immersion in foreignness as a catalyst for his self-becoming.

It was as if his self were a sort of three-dimensional jigsaw made of pliable bits that could be combined into a number of different beings, different Jacobs, rather than just one. Now the bits were moving around, shaping a self who startled him. (280)
Chambers borrows a quotation from Doris Lessing to explore the full range of this startling development. In The Golden Notebook, Lessing says that "Growing up is, after all, only the understanding that one's unique and incredible experience is what everyone shares" (201). Young Jacob is a devoted reader of Anne Frank's diary; his trip to Holland includes a pilgrimage to her home. But when he gets there, he is stunned to find that his special, intimate connection to Anne Frank, via her written words, is shared by innumerable other people (297-99).

Realizing that you're not special, at a time in life when everything you encounter is new and special, is both a huge disappointment and a potentially huge liberation. Postcards from No Man's Land captures that discovery in elaborate, sympathetic terms.

Chambers, Aidan. Postcards from No Man's Land. 1999. New York: Dutton [Penguin], 2002.