|Oct/Nov 2008 Book Reviews|
Mary Ann Shaffer.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.
Random House. 2008. 255 pp.
It was the pig that started it. The Guernsey Literary Society, I mean. But to tell you about that would spoil a good tale. Anyway, it was really a letter that started Juliet Ashton's story and brought her to the story of the pig.
Juliet is a writer living in post-war London with food rationing, bombed buildings, and her own gloom at being unable to find an inspiring topic for a new book. A letter from an unknown man in Guernsey who has acquired a book Juliet once owned sparks a correspondence that changes all this. And it's all because of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, the very odd title of which catches Juliet's interest (as it did mine) and draws her into the lives of a group of islanders who are as unusual as their reading group.
Guernsey is one of the British Channel Islands, a group of small islands which lie in the English Channel closer to the coast of France than to England. War-time occupation of the island by the Germans was, it seems, one reason that the Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society came into existence. And as Juliet's correspondence with various members of that group grows, she learns much about their lives during the Occupation. Most of all, however, she discovers a group of people whose personalities shine through their letters, and inevitably she feels that she has to meet them and learn more about them. Here, after all, may be material for her next book. It certainly provided material for Mary Anne Shaffer, who charts Juliet's life and progress through her letters and those of her various correspondents.
The epistolary style is notoriously difficult to bring off successfully, but Mary Ann Shaffer has done it exceptionally well, especially since this is her first book and she was over 70 when she began to write it. Especially, too, as she has woven together several different stories in these letters. Alongside letters from Juliet and her new island friends are letters to and from her publisher, his sister Sophie (a long-time friend of Juliet's), and another—American—publisher who has suddenly appeared in Juliet's life and is courting her lavishly. Juliet's bubbly personality and her wry view of life, which had made her war-time newspaper column Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War so popular, fill her letters, and we gradually learn a lot about her, too.
The islanders' letters and they themselves, when Juliet eventually meets them, are eccentric and full of interest. Their stories of war-time deprivation and of various things that happened on the island are grim and sometimes horrifying, but their resilience, courage, and love are readily apparent. Juliet gradually becomes more involved in their lives, and she is particularly interested in their memories of Elizabeth, the accidental founder of their group, and of her arrest and imprisonment in Germany for helping one of the Polish slave workers on the island. This becomes the core of Juliet's book-research, and no one knows, in this immediately post-war period, whether Elizabeth is still alive and will return to the island to be reunited with her small daughter Kit.
The harsh reality of the islanders' war-time experiences adds to the uncertainly about Elizabeth's return, but dark as these memories of the past are, the growing friendship between Juliet and Kit, and with other members of the group, fills the book with light. Mary Ann Shaffer's book is not gloomy reading. By the end, one might be forgiven for thinking that Guernsey is peopled with eccentric herbalists making witchy potions, amiable alcoholics drinking their way through their former employer's wine cellar, starchy matrons, and fishermen who concoct bizarrely inventive meals, all of whom write unusually interesting letters, but since we only meet a handful of the 1400 or so inhabitants, we could well be mistaken.
So, in spite of its title, this book is not "just another cookery book," or even "just another book-group novel." In spite of some dark subject matter and some harrowing and very realistic moments, it turns out in the end to be an enjoyable and most unusual love story.
Note to American readers: In the US edition, the book is credited to Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. For an explanation as to Barrows' involvement in the book, please see her recent interview at Powell's Books.