The Postman (Penguin Specials)

Written by Jesse Field (trans.) Yu Bi
Review by Fiona Alison

This is a small book but a large, impressive story, simply told and heartbreaking but concluding with hope. In Shanghai in 1936, when young Zhouliang’s father, a local postman, is found dead, his mother is approached by an agent offering to pay the tuition to continue Zhouliang’s schooling. His mother leaves Shanghai to marry again, but Zhouliang doesn’t go back to school. Instead he applies to join the post office, purchasing his own mandatory bicycle with the tuition money. Gradually he is groomed to deliver coded letters, as his father had done before him, and during this time encounters Su Lina, whom he worships from afar over many years.

The writing here is effortless and understated, the relationships matter-of-fact and cold, yet it is at once very stirring. So much happens in these few pages. Almost everyone is playing a double role, no one is who they appear to be, and the author reveals connections between the characters that we don’t see coming. The danger encountered by agents seeking to undermine the Japanese occupants is taken for granted, no emotion playing into it. Or perhaps the emotion is buried in the secrets. There are many mentions of people using only facial expressions or body language to convey answers or feelings or requests, which help to evoke the deferential Chinese mannerisms and stoicism. It also grounds the story in its clandestine nature, as everyone is working in secrecy toward some end. Death is just another part of life, and the cyclical nature of life and love is apparent in Zhouliang’s journey. As many Chinese names do not fall trippingly from the Western tongue, it was necessary to make notes, but this did not detract in any way from this poignant war story of love, loss, and sacrifice, which I highly recommend.