The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer
|The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer|
|Category: General Fiction|
|Reviewer: Paul Curd|
|Summary: An entertaining and moving study of love, friendship and literature against the backdrop of the German Occupation of the Channel Islands.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 256||Date: August 2008|
|Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC|
Juliet Ashton is a successful writer, author of the popular Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War column in the Spectator. But now it is 1946 and the war is over, and Juliet wants to put Izzy behind her and write a serious book in her own name. The problem is she has no idea what to write about. Then she receives a letter from a pig farmer on the Channel Island of Guernsey, a man called Dawsey Adams, who has acquired a second hand book by Charles Lamb that has Juliet's name and address written inside the front cover. Dawsey is writing to Juliet because he loved the book – it helped keep his spirits up during the German Occupation – and he wonders if she knows of any other books by Charles Lamb. There are no bookshops left on the island, you see, since the Germans left. In passing, Dawsey mentions in his letter the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which came into being because of a roast pig they had to keep secret from the Germans, and Juliet is intrigued. Why, she writes back, did a roast-pig dinner have to be kept a secret? How could a pig cause them to establish a literary society? And, most pressing of all, what is a potato peel pie?
In the ensuing exchange of correspondence, Juliet learns more about life on the island under German Occupation and develops a growing epistolary friendship with the various members of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. She reads their stories of life under the Occupation, and how books and their companionship sustained them through that dark period. Then Juliet is commissioned by The Times to write a long piece for the supplement on the philosophical value of reading and she decides to include the society in her article. A visit to the island is inevitable.
I found this book a joy to read. An old-fashioned epistolary novel, it is told entirely through the letters written between the characters, which in itself makes it light reading without being lightweight. The 'voice' of each individual shines through brilliantly, their characters revealed through their language, the books they read and the way they tell their own stories. Getting to know them is a real treat.
As we find out more and more about the reality of life under German Occupation, so we discover more about the absent founder of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. In particular, we find out more about Elizabeth McKenna. It was Elizabeth who quick-wittedly invented the society one post-curfew night, a flash of inspiration that saved her and her friends' bacon. She also fell in love with a German officer, saved a starving prisoner of war, and was sent to a concentration camp, leaving behind a young child. When Juliet eventually arrives on Guernsey, she effortlessly steps into the void left by Elizabeth and the story takes on a new dimension.
This is a remarkable book about the war, told from the point of view of the civilians caught up in it. There are stories of hardship and humour, bravery and cowardice, kindness and betrayal. It also a gentle love story, and an exploration of the meaning of friendship – and of books. It has a surprising depth beneath its light touch. There is a real sense of time and place evoked through Shaffer's perfect prose. I found this novel a genuinely Good Read, riveting in places and intensely moving in others.
I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.
Further reading suggestion: My Enemy's Cradle by Sarah Young
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer is in the Independent Booksellers' Prize 2009.
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You can read more book reviews or buy The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer at Amazon.com.
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