The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a book that bears a rather odd title, and for many of us who judge a book by its title, this will not sound like serious, intense literature. And yet, it is a story that has a war at the center of its plot. Co-authored by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, the novel became hugely successful, reaching the number one position on the New York Times Best Seller list for paperback trade fiction in August 2009; and remaining on the list for 11 weeks.
A little research into what Guernsey is will tell you that it is a charming little British island in the English Channel that was occupied by the German army from 1940 to 1945 at the time of the Second World War. It is from this Guernsey Islands that Juliet Ashton, a budding writer in London, receives a letter from a certain Dawsey Adams (take note) requesting for books written by Charles Lamb. The year is 1946 and the Second World War is just over, leaving behind its devastating after effects.
Intrigued by the name of the literary club Dawsey claims to belong to, Juliet enquiries and stumbles upon a ‘society’ that had begun as a cover for the Guernsey residents breaking curfew during the German occupation. Thus begins a series of correspondence between Juliet and the society members through handwritten, personal letters.
These letters contain the experiences of people who had lived during the occupation. They are rich with references, anecdotes and reminiscences, and with them we are able to weave the complete picture of the situation on this tiny island during the most trying period in history. They speak of the isolation and boredom that came with the loss of connectivity to the rest of the world, of the scarcity of essential goods, of loss and destruction, of the horrors of the concentration camps and the apprehensions about a future after the war.
And yet, almost magically, none of the stories — tragic as they are — let the readers plunge into a despair and hopelessness typical of war stories. There is always hope, shining through with innocence and there are friendships forged among the members of the literary society. We seen the humanity and courage of wartime Guernsey.
The specialty of this book is that it is an epistolary novel — a term I learnt while I did a bit of research on the book. This means that it is entirely composed of letters written from one character to another. The letters take you back and forth in time, connecting the present post-war situation to a not-so-distant catastrophic past of WWII. An unexpected love story, and an interesting anecdote about a famous and beloved writer also unfolds somewhere in between.
A special mention that I have to make here is of Katherine, the beloved founding member of the literary club, who was detained and taken away to a concentration camp long before Juliet got a chance to meet her. There could be many ways to describe her persona. Many adjectives flitted in my mind and I’d nearly given up, thinking that perhaps words would fall short of painting her picture in all its entirety, until I came up with three phrases that describe her down to the very essence of who she was — a hopeless romantic, a worthy friend and a very good human being; simple traits, really, but the kind that made her so extraordinary that even in her captivity and torture, she shone like a beacon of hope for all around her and those she left behind on the Island with her daughter.
In a way, Juliet’s story is also a continuation of Katherine’s — she pursues love, joy and her own inner voice with the same ferocity and integrity. This cycle gets completed when she finds love and joy in Guernsey.
A film made on Netflix on the book manages to capture some of the charm of the book, especially since it has a fresh star cast. Much is lost, though, for the viewers who watched the movie and didn’t read the book. As the lockdown exposed us to unending boredom, frustration and anxiety, a very tiny reminiscence of what it really means to live in the times of war and curfew — the book is just the perfect read. And if you do read it, let me know if you felt the urge to sit down and write a letter to someone you care for, because I did!