Penny Guisinger's Postcards from Here was a deserving Semi-Finalist for the 2015 Vine Leaves Vignette Collection Award, and it was a pleasure to read it for this review. (Note: I play no part in the judging of the award, so I had not read the manuscript before it was published.)
The concept of a book as a series of postcards is not a new one (see for example Carrie Fisher's Postcards from the Edge and E Annie Proulx's Postcards), but what literary form could be more apt for a postcard-themed book than the vignette?
The title already warmed me to the concept of the book, because I adore traditional postcards. I have continued to send them avidly while most other people have switched to social media and texting to report to friends and family on vacation. Penny Guisinger adds her own twist on the traditional theme by penning her postcards not from holiday destinations but from her home in New England.
Written slowly and carefully over several years (judging from pieces headlined 2011 and 2015 in this collection), this is a beautifully honed series of observational sketches, capturing apparently unconnected moments from her daily life with her wife and family in a rural Maine community.
They slowly build up to represent what is both a deeply personal perspective on her own life, struggling with challenges such as divorce, alcoholism and bad health, and an affectionate appreciation of a small community in which the individual is valued and idiosyncracy embraced.
The tone is a delicate balance of poetically beautiful description, vividly conveying the famous New England colours through the black and white of her words on the page, and prosaic topics that lend themselves less obviously to poetry but about which she writes movingly.
There is plenty of wry yet loving observation about motherhood and family relationships; poignant musing on the fragility of life; and defiance in the face of adversity, despite her familiarity with depression and despair.
She is also often very funny. Her humour is smart and well-judged, and her phraseology succinct to the point of understatement. I loved her description of an annoyingly long supermarket queue as "like the last chopper out of Saigon", and the lady in the farmers' market "crouching sorting carrots by breed". Her humour is also often overlaying a more poignant message. In "Kate and Al", she describes her friend's husband, clinging onto life thanks to his wife's donated kidney plus a heart transplant, thus: "Al is older, but contains newer parts".
Her description of her community often stops short of laughing outright at her neighbours' antics, or of complaining. She respects and works around their difference even when finding it annoying or absurd - for example, in "Don't Shoot", describing the obsessive deer-stalkers that make it necessary for her family to wear reflective clothing in the hunting season for fear of being mistaken for deer: "Around here, unless you dress yourself up like a traffic cone, you can die in your own driveway just for taking a walk."
I also loved "The Community Orchestra", in which she skirts around the undoubted inaccuracy of this hotchpotch of musicians because of their eagerness to please their local audience.
Emerging from between the lines of this absorbing collection arises a portrait of an imperfect yet tolerant and caring old-fashioned community, and of a plucky and sensitive author who is giving this microcosm of the world her best shot at surviving whatever life throws at her, and seizing much to love along the way. Though her canvas is small, in the vignettes and the community, her wit and wisdom will resonate universally, wherever in the world her postcards land.