Turnips, books, and occupation.
First Published: 29th July 2008
Date Reviewed: 14th June 2015
Juliet is stuck. Her last book did well but she’s having trouble finding a new topic to write about. She begins to receive letters from a man in Guernsey who bought a book she’d sold to a second-hand shop. Dawsey introduces her to his life and friends, the story of their makeshift book club, and wartime Guernsey. It’s hers for the taking.
The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society is a wonderful little book that has earned its place in every bookshop. (Is there a reader who hasn’t encountered it somewhere?) Jolly, fun, but balanced by the solemnity of World War II, it provides both a great escape and an excellent history lesson about a place mainland classes forget.
The book is told through letters, telegrams, and a couple of diary entries. The correspondents are many but it’s not difficult to keep track of who’s who – the only reason you’ll fail is if you worry about it. The authors have given each character a unique voice and personalities shine through the text. You will know these people extremely well by the time you’ve finished. You’ll know more about them than you would if the book had been told in usual prose. The writers are open, unrestricted as they are by thoughts of anyone else reading the letters than their intended (fictional) friend. Given the nature of letters between friends, the book is not bogged down by detail. You form your image of the characters naturally, without the usual ‘my hair is… my eyes are…’ and it takes the pressure off; you never have to wonder if you’re picturing them correctly.
This is a story within a story. It’s about the composition of a potential new work of fiction or non-fiction inside a larger tale. It’s as much about Guernsey as Juliet’s personal journey through life, about the beginnings of a new way of life, and like Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca it’s also about someone who is no longer there (though for entirely different reasons). You get the wishes, the relationships, and the mundane day-to-day. The troubles, the fun, the history.
And history is inevitably important to this book. Shaffer (for we can assume it’s her1) spends a lot of time on the German occupation of Guernsey, ensuring the fiction she writes weaves around it convincingly. She shows the hard times, the evacuations, the punishments, the food scarcity, but she also shows the humanity of the German officers, reminding her readers that there was a fair amount of ease, some respect between the occupied and occupiers. The name of the book, quirky as it is, links into the rationing and shows people trying to make the best of a bad situation.
So, not surprisingly, this is also a book about books. Books bring Juliet and the islanders together and there are explorations of reading groups and passages and, on a general scale, what reading means, the place it has in our lives. Literature carries the story along.
In truth any review I wrote could not do this book justice. It is hard to put into words how great an experience it is. If the characters see Guernsey as home, see those who arrive as coming home, then reading the story is like coming home. You are welcomed with open arms. The characters could be real, the authors the fictional people.
The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society is exquisite. It’s an escape, it’s a laugh, it’s a lesson. There’s a reason it’s everywhere and has been for some time. Let yourself be drawn to the characters, let them whisk you to their post-war Guernsey.
1 Shaffer wrote the majority – Barrows, her niece, took over when her aunt was too ill to carry on.
June 15, 2015, 5:20 pm
I have seen this everywhere, and yet I haven’t read it or actually knew what it was really about. I am pleased you enjoyed it.
June 15, 2015, 6:33 pm
I have a copy in my TBR collection, but I have yet to read this one. I am glad to hear you liked it, Charlie. I really like stories within a story. Stories told in letter format can be hit and miss for me though, and I think that’s partly why I haven’t yet moved this up in my TBR stack. It sounds though that the format is perfect for the story being told here.
June 16, 2015, 5:42 pm
This is one of my comfort books from way back. Even though Shaffers gets at some really, really sad details of the German occupation, the book has a whole makes me tremendously happy. It holds up very well to a reread.
July 20, 2015, 1:55 pm
Jessica: Yes, I took the everywhere as a sign even though I know lots will have seen it. It’s a good book. I was flicking through Barows’s own new release the other day and it seems she may have played a bigger role in ‘Guernsey than first thought, from the prose.
Literary Feline: I think you’d appreciate it :) Me too – when I initially thought to pick it up I wondered about the letters but it really works here. Without the sort of third-person/first-person the letters allow for (hard to describe – basically that first person but feeling of distance because the characters don’t address the reader) it wouldn’t be as good or at least would be very different.
Jenny: Yes, both the happiness and sadness are in full force here. It helps put forth the idea of being happy again some day. Glad to hear it’s a good re-read.