Title: Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society
Author: Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows
Publisher: Dial Press Trade Paperbacks
Publication Date: July 28, 2008
Pages: 290/ my edition includes Book Club questions
Amazon: Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society; Current Price $21.00 Canadian
My Rating: 9.5/10
January 1946: Writer Juliet Ashton receives a letter from a stranger, a founding member of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. And so begins a remarkable tale of the island of Guernsey during the German occupation, and of a society as extraordinary as its name.
The zany title of Mary Ann Shaffer's first and, alas, last novel derives from an invented book club on the island of Guernsey in the second world war. The club is invented by the resourceful character Elizabeth McKenna, who, bumping into a German patrol after curfew with a crowd of revellers, makes the society up on the spot. In reality, the tipsy party had been consuming forbidden roast pig at Amelia Maugery's. This is less a historical novel than a bibliophilic jeu d'esprit by an ex-librarian and bookseller, posthumously published, and completed by her niece Annie Barrows.
A novel in letters about books, bibliophiles, publishers, authors and readers, it centres on an imagined post-occupation Guernsey. Juliet Ashton, the whimsical, intuitive heroine, is an up-and-coming writer. While casting about for a new subject, she hears from a Guernsey pig farmer, Adam Dawsey, who has found Juliet's name and address in a second-hand copy of Charles Lamb's essays. From this fragile contact grows a web of correspondents, who feed Juliet's obsession with wartime Guernsey and the tragicomic interwoven stories of its people.
Shaffer's novel seems a version of pastoral, thronging with lovable people (or perhaps a version of piscatory, for the islanders were fishermen in a maritime world). But we remain aware that "Europe is like a hive broken open, teeming with thousands upon thousands of displaced people, all trying to get home". Exuberance is seamed with distress, and a vein of pastoral elegy centres on the lovely and exhilarating character of Elizabeth, Juliet's alter ego.
Her narrative is a weave of bright and dark, threading through the gentle humour of the islanders' stories. Elizabeth embodies a comic law of the novel: the more inventive and intuitive a person is, the more pregnant her actions will be and the greater her charm, in the deepest sense of that word. Elizabeth is a fugitive presence in the novel; she exists in the tissue of communal memory evoked by the letters.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society commemorates beautiful spirits who pass through our midst and hunker undercover through brutal times. Shaffer's Guernsey characters step from the past radiant with eccentricity and kindly humour, a comic version of the state of grace. They are innocents who have seen and suffered, without allowing evil to penetrate the rind of decency that guards their humanity.
Guernsey's dead will not return. Shaffer's writing, with its delicately offbeat, self-deprecating stylishness, is exquisitely turned, bearing a clear debt to Jane Austen. She shows, in addition, an uncanny ability to evoke period, miming its manners and mannerisms - not only in the reminders of blitzed London but also in recreating a culture that reveres books.
This is at the heart of the novel's golden comedy. The rarity of books in 1946 reminds us of an age we have lost, of stint and thrift combined with greater amplitude of time. In such a culture, handwritten letters are precious personal gifts. Each book, meeting and letter has value, commands affectionate attention, and never comes cheap.
I absolutely loved this book. The reason that I gave a half point reduction was because I would have loved to know what happens next how the story progresses.