Monday, 18 January 2010

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows)

--The blurb--
"' I wonder how the book got to Guernsey? Perhaps there is some sort of secret homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers.' January 1946: London is emerging from the shadow of the Second World War, and writer Juliet Ashton is looking for her next book subject. Who could imagine that she would find it in a letter from a man she's never met, a native of the island of Guernsey, who has come across her name written inside a book by Charles Lamb.. As Juliet and her new correspondent exchange letters, Juliet is drawn into the world of this man and his friends - and what a wonderfully eccentric world it is. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society - born as a spur-of-the-moment alibi when its members were discovered breaking curfew by the Germans occupying their island - boasts a charming, funny, deeply human cast of characters, from pig farmers to phrenologists, literature lovers all. Juliet begins a remarkable correspondence with the society's members, learning about their island, their taste in books, and the impact the recent German occupation has had on their lives. Captivated by their stories, she sets sail for Guernsey, and what she finds will change her forever. Written with warmth and humor as a series of letters, this novel is a celebration of the written word in all its guises, and of finding connection in the most surprising ways."

--The review--
This novel should catch many readers purely on the strength of its out-of-kilter title. Immediately it serves as a hook: people want to know the history behind it, and this starts them reading; as readers become more entwined in the characters and plot, this keeps them going. It's a tried-and-tested strategy, and it works well for Shaffer and Barrows. A further unusual twist is added by the fact that the novel is epistolary (a genre that can be tricky to sustain realistically, but which is handled well by the authors).

The fact of there being two authors is something that I've always struggled with; if you're not strong enough to write on your own, then why piggyback on the talents of others? However, this is well explained in the book's appendices: Barrows was enlisted to finish the novel off on behalf of her mother when Shaffer became unexpectedly ill (but even then, what was the rush to finish exactly)? Nevertheless, though, credit should be given where it's due: Barrows fits seamlessly into Shaffer's writing style, to the extent that it is impossible to tell where one author's writing ends and the other's begins. If you must collaborate on authorship, this is certainly the way to do it. The writing is well-paced and consistent, and we get to know the characters well (they are also introduced one by one so that their presence is not overwhelming). The whole novel feels extremely organic, with the relationships developing naturally.

Juliet, the protagonist, is likeable and headstrong while remaining traditional, creative and imperfect. She is human and enthusiastic; we want her to succeed and to extricate herself from her unwanted suitor for once and for all. As a result, we are pleased that her ending is happy. There is romance, but it is not an overriding theme, with the friendships in the novel taking greater priority. Ultimately, it also reassures readers of the value of long-distance relationships (friendships, in this case), with warmth exuding from the novel's pages.

The novel is also historically valuable - in documenting the occupation of the Channel Islands, it deals with a much-maligned area of Second World War history, and further serves to make the book a unique debut. The only annoying aspect of this novel was really extremely so. While I can appreciate that the writers are American, it is worth regulating your English appropriately if you are pretending to be English (Juliet is a Londoner). This makes the various anachronisms and Americanisms with which the novel is peppered irritating in the extreme. "I kid you not", "teens", "dammit", "wrote the butler" (instead of "wrote TO the butler"), "to be raised" (for "to be brought up"), and "come meet" (instead of "come and/to meet") are just a few examples, and are the only major sign of sloppiness or laziness in the novel. But, nevertheless, this does not impede enjoyment totally. With the pursuit of happiness at its centre, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society is a heartwarming read that readers can fondly come back to over and over again.


Jill said...


I live in Guernsey and I have a small business making and selling postcards, calendars and souvenirs for locals and tourists coming to the island. Following the success of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society book I was asked to produce a range of souvenirs for visitors who come to Guernsey because of the book. I thought that members of your book club might be interested in these products as gifts for friends and family who have enjoyed the book. If you would like to know more please visit our web site (These gifts have been produced with the blessing of Bloomsbury)

May 9th is Liberation Day when Guernsey celebrates is freedom from the German Occupation. It is 65 years since the liberating forces arrived and yesterday we had an island wide celebration with a Cavalcade, street parties, formal services and fireworks. See for some of the events and for more island and Peel Pie info.

I hope this is of interest, let me know if you need more info,

Kind regards,


Danmark said...

The plot begins innocently enough, describing town life on a small British island. Yet with as many layers as a large onion, the obvious surface keeps being peeled back to reveal ever more complicated and disturbing information.
To mention all of the many themes addressed, then, would read like a list. Suffice it to say that love and romance are included, but also the worst human depravity in history, the way in which the Nazis treated their victims. Even in this bestiality, however, the authors -- like poor Anne Frank -- were able to see some good and some beauty inherent in the human race