There should be a special word for when readers become so thoroughly engrossed in a book that they can hardly put it down—and are jolted, even bereft, when it comes to an end. Captivated comes close but doesn’t completely convey the experience of reading The Postcard from French writer and actor Anne Berest. Already an international bestseller, it’s a unique piece of autofiction that unfolds like a thriller while seamlessly addressing a number of hefty social issues past and present.
Like the author, the novel’s Anne Berest is the great-granddaughter of artist Francis Picabia and French Resistance fighter Gabriele Buffet-Picabia. But Anne knows little about her maternal grandmother Myriam except that she was Jewish and lost her family in concentration camps. The topic is rarely discussed, and Anne doesn’t think much about it until one day when her young daughter remarks, “They don’t like Jews very much at school.”
Shaken to her core, Anne can hardly address the subject. Instead, she suddenly remembers a strange, anonymous postcard that her mother had received years earlier, in 2003. The front showed a photo of the Opéra Garnier in Paris; the back contained the names of Myriam’s parents, Ephraim and Emma, and siblings, Noémie and Jacques, all of whom died at Auschwitz in 1942.
Anne becomes determined to find out who sent the postcard, though she’s uncertain whether the sender’s intentions were honorable or menacing, “waiting, as they had been for decades, patiently, for me to come looking for them.” She partners with her chain-smoking mother to investigate, hopping into her mother’s messy car, and little by little, their efforts pay off and details emerge, which Berest shares in fictionalized scenes, creating dialogue and details while sticking to the facts as closely as possible. As her mother says, “It’s incredible how much is still there in the archives, like an underground world, a parallel world, still alive. Like the embers of a fire . . . all you have to do is blow on them to rekindle the flame.”
The rekindling is unsettling, and Berest’s moving storytelling brings her ancestors’ story to life in dramatic, artful ways, often interspersing historical events with running discussions between mother and daughter. They uncover an epic, tragic tale that spans the globe, including Russia, Latvia, Poland, France, the United States and Palestine. Although Ephraim had taken note of the growing dangers to Jews in Europe, he was determined to become a French citizen, and in so doing, “He’d allowed himself to become inextricably entangled in a situation from which there was no escape, trapped by rising waters while he simply stood there and watched them rise.”
As Anne and her mother explore their past, the author notices a number of coincidences and parallels to her own life while acknowledging the extent of the inherited trauma. “I carry within me,” she concludes, “inscribed in the very cells of my body, the memory of an experience of danger so violent that sometimes I think I really lived it myself, or that I’ll be forced to relive it one day.” Readers of The Postcard will be left with similar feelings and much to ponder, especially after these words from Anne’s mother: “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’?”