The Post Office Girl
by Stefan Zweig was the last Book Club book of 2011. I didn’t think I would enjoy it, but actually I loved it.
Christine is a young woman living in Austria in the years after the first world war. Life is hard, there’s not enough money and the rooms she lives in with her mother are permanently damp.
Her aunt, who emigrated to the US before the war, is touring Europe and invites Christine to join her in a ski resort for a week or so. Her mother is too ill to go, so Christine goes instead. Her aunt and her husband are very rich and Christine is catapulted into a world of luxury.
But it comes to an abrupt end when gossip starts that Christine is not wealthy and is in fact a poor girl dressed up in her aunt’s clothes. Christine returns home to find her mother has died and everything seems so much grimmer now.
Life goes on and Christine feels ever more estranged from the village. She decides to spend weekends in Vienna to try to recapture the glamour of her holiday. While she is there she visits with her sister and brother-in-law, Franz. On one occasion her brother-in-law runs into Ferdinand, who he had known in the war. In a quirk of fate, Franz got sent home and Ferdinand spent two years as a POW in Siberia. Ferdinand is bitter and disappointed at the arbitrariness of life and Christine finds her soul mate in him.
Their affair is made grim and joyless by their consciousness of their poverty and eventually begins to fizzle out. Then, unexpectedly, Ferdinand comes to see Christine in the post office because he has been laid off. He has a plan for them to commit suicide together and Christine agrees, but then Ferdinand discovers how much money is kept at the post office and hatches a new plan to steal the money ad flee to France. The book ends with him presenting his plan to Christine and asking if she wants to go along with it.
From a slightly slow start, this develops into a really fast-paced book. The pace is achieved by a POV tight into the head of the POV character resulting a stream of consciousness type narrative that is quite breathless. The emotion is ramped right up and it borders on melodrama at points. For me, that worked brilliantly. The swirl and joy and freedom of the two weeks Christine has in an environment where money appears to be limitless leave the reader as giddy as Christine. And then the plunge back into the grim, grinding, drabness of her life without money is just as all-consuming.
I liked the depiction of the relationship between Christine and Ferdinand. They didn’t seem to like each other much, but the fact that they understood each other in a way no one else could bound them together. They shared despair and a sense of unfairness.
The ending was a bit strange, and lost the tone of the rest of the book. I suspect this is due to it having been published post-humously. Despite that, I really enjoyed this. It was difficult to put down, moving and the social commentary is still, tragically, relevant.