Book Review: The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society

What is the novel about?

Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’ novel, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2008), provides insight into the lives of the Islanders who lived on The Guernsey Islands during the German occupation in the Second World War. 

Stories about the occupation are made known to the reader when the main character of the novel, Juliet Ashton, receives a letter from a Guernsey Islander, Dawsey Adams.  We learn that Dawsey writes to Juliet to inquire about an author, Charles Lamb, and any other books that might have been written by this author. Dawsey obtained Juliet’s name and address in one of Charles Lamb’s novels. He had read this novel in his Literary Society during the occupation.

Astonished by the letter and that her copy of Charles Lamb’s novel travelled all the way to The Guernsey Islands, Juliet sets off in finding other books written by Charles Lamb to send to Dawsey Adams.

I wonder how the book got to Guernsey? Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers.

The Gureney Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, page: 9.

As she corresponds more and more with Dawsey, she also starts writing letters to the other members of the Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. At first as research for an article on reading for the newspaper company, The Times, but later on her own merits.

Through these correspondences with the Society members, Juliet learns about their and other Islander’s experiences of the occupation. As her interest and kinship with her newfound friends grows, she starts writing a novel called; The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Writing novels

Typography

It is fitting that the novel consists entirely of written letters. This illustrates the correspondences between the characters.  However, the letters are not only written by or addressed to Juliet Ashton, but also to and from many other characters within the novel.  The novel is therefore written in the first-person narrator, even though it contains multiple perspectives.

These correspondences feel like multiple ongoing conversations between a large variety of people across Europe and other countries. The use of the letter format contributes to the time period (Post World War Two, 1946) in which the novel takes place. This makes the story realistic as letters, telegrams and cables were some of the main communication methods during those times.

Writing letters and postcards

Along with the letter format, another aspect that contributes to the time period is the order in which the letters are organised. The letters are organised chronologically, resulting in some letters appearing before the previous letter is answered. This is due to some letters being replied to quicker than others. Sometimes there is even a telegram or cable woven in between the letters.

This adds emphasis to the sense of trust and simplicity found in the lives lived by the characters. How the people of that time wrote letters to each other and believed that it would end up at the place it was meant to go – no matter how long it took to be replied to. 

The language and manner used in the letters create vivid imagery. Not only of the different settings within the novel like London and The Guernsey Islands but also of the characters’ personalities, values, mannerisms and quirks. The style creates the feeling of dialogue between the characters, adding liveliness and colour to the novel.

Dear Mrs Maugery,

Juliet Ashton has written to me, and I am astonished. Am I to understand she whishes me to provide a character reference for her? Well, so be it! I cannot impugn her character – only her common sense. She hasn’t any.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, page: 38.

This tone also gives the novel a quick reading tempo, which is – for me – very rare with novels solemnly written in letter form.

Themes

Apart from the typography, the themes that are evident in this novel contributes to the story’s depth. We read a lot about people – their hardship and what they had to endure – in the time of war, but what about their lives after the war was over?

Some people tried to continue with life as it were before the war, which if they still had the financial means, meant going to lavish parties and celebrating being alive. This worked for some, but for others this only made them feel more out of place.

I believe this theme is emphasized by the protagonist’s, Juliet Ashton, lack of interest in writing comical relief based on the war. Even though so many readers found refuge in her book, Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War, writing this type of comical relief made her feel disconnected from the world.

I no longer want to write this book – my head and my heart just aren’t in it. Dear as Izzy Bickerstaff is – and was – to me, I don’t want to write anything else under that name. I don’t want to be considered a light-hearted journalist any more. I do acknowledge that making readers laugh – or at least chuckle – during the war was no mean feat, but I don’t want to do it any more. I can’t seem to dredge up any sense of proportion or balance these days, and God knows one can’t write humour without them.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, page: 3.

Then there were the people for whom the war wasn’t over. People who still waited for loved ones who were arrested and taken away during the war, who’s yet to return. This group of people is represented by the people on the Guernsey Islands in Mary Ann and Annie’s novel.

As the protagonist, they find refuge in books. It distracts them from their own hardship and brings light and laughter into their lives. Furthermore, it brings people – readers and writers – together, especially when we share the stories we read or tell.

Charles Lamb made me laugh during the German Occupation, especially when he wrote about the roast pig. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society came into being because of a roast pig we had to keep secret from the German soldiers, so I feel a kinship to Mr Lamb. I am sorry to bother you, but I would be sorrier still not to know about him, as his writing have made me his friend.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, page: 8.

The origin of the story

The idea for this novel started in 1980 when Mary Ann was fascinated by and wanted to write a biography about Kathleen Scott, wife of the polar explorer Robert Falcon Scott. As the archives at Cambridge in England proved to be unhelpful, Ann decided to visit the Guernsey Islands in the English Channels.

Library

Unfortunately, or perhaps, fortunately, bad weather caused her to be stranded in the Island’s airport. There she found refuge in a bookstore filled with books on the German occupation of The Guernsey Islands during the Second World War. This is where her interest in the Island’s history took root. 

…one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you on to another book, and another bit there will lead you on to a third book.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, page: 10.

However, Marry Ann Shaffer only got to writing the book twenty years after she had visited The Guernsey Islands and due to her failing health, Mary Ann also had to ask her niece, Annie Barrows,  to help her finish the novel. Sadly, Mary Ann passed away early in 2008, only a few months before her novel was published later that year.

Her niece sees Mary Ann’s novel as an embodiment of her. According to Annie Barrows, it is full of her aunt’s delights, oddities that enchanted her,  expressions that entertained her and most importantly books that she had adored. It was like Mary Ann herself and suddenly the rest of the world had a seat at the same table as to where Annie was sitting.  

Why I love the novel

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was introduced to me through a movie trailer. That is how I ended up buying the novel. I was wandering around in a bookstore when I recognised the movie poster on the book cover. Without a doubt, I decided to buy the novel then and there.

However, when I realised that the novel consisted completely out of letters, I got discouraged. Every book I’ve read, written in this format was dry, had a very slow pace and was difficult to read. Realising this, made me procrastinate reading the novel.

When I finally started reading the novel, I could not put it down! Even though it was written in the format of letters and telegrams – with absolutely no dialogue – it felt like I was reading dialogue. The characters’ conversations are so clever, playful and hilarious. It made me laugh out loud and fall in love with them.

Annie Barrows tells in the novel’s afterword that she received multiple letters from readers who felt sad the story had to end. They described the book as quirky, unlike anything else, charming, vivid and witty. Everyone, including myself, wanted more. We wanted the story to go on forever. 

The good news is that…Whenever we are willing to be delighted and share our delight [in reading], as Mary Ann did, we are part of the ongoing story of  The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Annie Barrows
Other sources used in the writing of this article
  • Shaffer, M.A and Barrows, A. 2008. The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society. Bloomsbury Publishing: London.

Irene

Art, in all its forms, has the power to make the viewer see the world with new eyes. It tells stories, creates awareness and changes our perspectives. This blog is dedicated to appreciating art and artists. Focusing on how they bring colour into our ordinary lives.

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