What a pleasure it was to read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society! The first time I caught sight of its ridiculous title in a bookshop, I knew I would end up reading it. The only question was when (my book list gets longer by the day!). Then my youngest brother bought it and I waited eagerly for him to finish it so that I could borrow it. Except he never got around to reading it. Eventually I got tired of waiting and simply bought my own copy.
It’s January 1946 and Juliet Ashton is cold, bored, and depressed. A hugely popular columnist during the war, Juliet is now struggling to find inspiration for her next book. But post-war London is dreary and Londoners drearier still, and she is having a hard time of it. Then, out of the blue, she receives a letter from a Guernsey farmer called Dawsey Adams, who bought a book that once belonged to her. The two begin a correspondence, and intrigued by Dawsey’s accounts of island life, Juliet sets out to learn more about life on Guernsey during the war and in particular, about the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, of which Dawsey is a proud member.
Soon, Juliet is exchanging letters with all the members of the Society and an idea for a new book is taking shape in her mind. Having convinced her publisher to let her go and do some on site research, Juliet abandons her current suitor and heads out to Guernsey to meet her new friends in person. Among them is Isola Pribby, ugly and loveable, whom people say is a witch; John Booker, the butler who impersonated his aristocratic employer for three years; and shy Dawsey, who shares Juliet’s love for the writings of Charles Lamb, and to whom she finds herself unexpectedly attracted. There is also Elizabeth McKenna, the remarkable founder of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, whose quick wits and kind heart saved more than one life during the German Occupation, but who was deported in 1944 and hasn’t yet returned. Through their stories, Juliet comes to know and love the island in a way that will change her life forever.
Juliet and her friends’ letters paint a fascinating picture of life on Occupied Guernsey. It was an aspect of the war I had never heard about before: the Channel Islands are mostly considered too small to warrant a place in the history books, but their proximity to the French coast made them particularly vulnerable both to Nazi invasion and to neglect at the hands of the English. Already interested in Jersey, I am now determined to one day visit Guernsey as well. Mary Ann Shaffer tells its unique history through the eyes of a very diverse group of characters and captures each individual personality with great skill. The tale she weaves out of these many voices is a poignant one, but it is also frequently a funny one: Juliet especially has an uproarious sense of humour, and there were times when I laughed till I cried! I read some of the funniest bits out to my brother, who was in a foul mood because he was having trouble with the Bach piano suite he was working on, and even he cracked a smile! My one regret is that Mary Ann Shaffer died before she could write another such story…
© Florence Berlioz 2011