The Postcard

Image of The Postcard
Release Date: 
May 16, 2023
Europa Editions
Reviewed by: 

“Reading this novel is intimate, uncomfortably so at moments, but that intimacy is a gift. . . . Berest has taken us by the hand to lead us through the family home and search for the family graves that don’t exist.”

At its core, Anne Berest’s English-language debut is an exploration of generational trauma. Spanning five generations—from the narrator’s great-grandparents to her daughter—The Postcard delves into both literal and figurative archives, conjuring a past that has never fully receded into history.

Based on Berest’s own family story, the novel introduces the title’s fateful postcard within the first two pages. The front of the card shows a photo of the Opéra Garnier; the postmark is from the Louvre post office—the largest in Paris. The message holds only four words: Ephraïm, Emma, Noémie, and Jacques, the names of Berest’s great-grandparents and maternal aunt and uncle, all of whom died in Auschwitz in 1942.

The narrator (also named Anne) is 24 when the postcard arrives at her parents’ home. The family muses about its origins over lunch, and then Anne’s mother puts the postcard in a drawer. They do not talk about it again until ten years later, when Anne is about to give birth to her own daughter, who will one day ask Anne’s mother if they are all Jewish and be displeased with the affirmative answer because “They don’t like Jews much at school.”

In the unease of this moment, that image of the Opéra Garnier crosses Anne’s mind, and she feels drawn to discover the postcard’s author and their reason for sending that anonymous, devastating message. “I’d reached the age where something, some force, pushes you to look back,” she writes, “because the horizon of your past is now more vast, more mysterious, than the one that lies ahead.”

It is this mysterious, vast horizon of the past that propels the novel, and Berest weaves a haunting narrative that simultaneously travels back in time and pulls time forward. The lives of Ephraïm, Emma, Noémie, and Jacques unfold in vivid, painful detail. Even as their liberties and safety erode, Anne’s ancestors continue with their daily routines in occupied France, making no plans for escape, hopeful they’ll be able to remain “invisible.” We know their fate, but we share this same hope, unable to believe things are really as bad as they seem.

Anne questions her mother on this: “Maman . . . there comes a point when you can’t keep saying, ‘but people didn’t know’ . . .”

Her mother replies, “Indifference is universal. Who are you indifferent toward today, right now? Ask yourself that. Which victims living in tents, or under overpasses, or in camps way outside the cities are your ‘invisible ones’?”

This reply is staggering, like so much of Berest’s novel, and shakes both narrator and reader. Who have we ceased to see?

By giving us the stories of Ephraïm, Emma, Noémie, and Jacques, Berest pulls the atrocities of Nazi Germany into the present moment, reminding the reader that we’re all imbued with the history that precedes us. Researcher Paula Thomson notes that “Early pre- and post-natal experiences, including early trauma, are encoded in the implicit memory of the fetus . . . These early experiences in the womb already start to set the course for how our bodies and our minds will respond to the world once we are born.” The Postcard embodies this theory.

Anne’s daughter, Anne herself, Anne’s mother and grandmother—all the descendants of Ephraïm, Emma, Noémie, and Jacques—carry their trauma forward, and Berest has been gracious enough to invite us into that space with them.

Reading this novel is intimate, uncomfortably so at moments, but that intimacy is a gift. It is as though Berest has taken us by the hand to lead us through the family home and search for the family graves that don’t exist. Who are your invisible ones? she continues to ask through the tour, and we are forced to answer, both on her account and our own.