PoliticsSocietyCultureBlogNausicaa LabCultural Association

The Guernsey literary and potato peel pie society

13 May 2010
Published in Culture
by Christina Kolyva

As a book title, search The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is unquestionably eye-catching. Speaking from my own experience, it made me frown a little at first and wonder whether my eyes were deceiving me. Certainly dear authors, I thought, this title sounds as if you have just put random words together, does it not? Growing curious, I read the blurb and having become none the wiser about what on earth the connection between the Channel Islands, a Book Club and a Pie is, I started flipping through the pages. Any hint of scepticism that this might be just a frivolous book wrapped up in a catchy title vanished into thin air after the first few pages, and as I read on, I got entirely enchanted by the ambience and characters. There was nothing left but deference for authors Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows by the time I had finished reading.

The novel consists of a series of letters and notes exchanged mostly between the central character, Juliet, and others over the course of a few months in 1946. Juliet is a successful authoress in her early thirties, living in the gloominess of the bombarded post-war London, feeling rather restless, seeking for love, lacking inspiration and subconsciously longing for a fresh start in life. A member of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society comes across a second-hand book once owned by Juliet and writes to her a rather reserved but extremely dignified letter to ask if she could help him get hold of more material from the same author. She is a fresh, completely unpretentious and cheerful correspondent, encouraging replies and more correspondence from the people of Guernsey. Mostly farmers and fishermen and feeling quite isolated from the rest of the world, the islanders are simply thrilled to discover someone so uncondenscending to whom they can express, in the most delightful and candid way, their strong opinions about books, authors and every other matter conceivable. Juliet soon uncovers, piece by piece, a fascinating story and makes a life-changing visit to Guernsey to learn more and meet her new friends.

Apart from the immediate sense of exhilaration, the element that drew and locked my attention to this book in the long term was the ingenious way the narrative spotlight is passed from one character to the other. Depending on the sender of the letter, there is an amusing change of storytelling style and pace, page after page. Even letters by correspondents frugal in their use of words are complemented by information dispersed in other letters, so that the need for the reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps never feels arduous. The epistolary style of the novel combined with the fact that the presence of books is so prominent everywhere has certain similarities to 84 Charing Cross Road by Helen Hanff: all correspondents – whether authors, publishers or readers – have in common their fondness of books and they form friendships through letter-writing that was initiated by literary enquiries. Compared to other books about books, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society might not be as autobiographical as 84 Charing Cross Road, nor as hysterically funny and surreal as the Thursday Next novels by Jasper Fforde, nor as heartbreaking as the Book Thief by Markus Zusak, but it combines just the right dose of all these ingredients into one lovely book.

As I was reading through, I could not get The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by Gerald B Edwards out of my mind. That is not simply because both storylines concern the Island of Guernsey while it was under German Occupation, although the prominent sense of historical background and geographical location in both books undoubtedly triggered the connection. It is mainly because the picturesque Guernsey that emerges from the pages of G. Edwards, could not be any more perfect in its provinciality, insularity and superb detail, as the natural habitat of the Guernsey people we meet in the pages of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. It is very easy to imagine Ebenezer and the other members of the Literary Society being neighbours, quarrelling in loud Guernsey patois, gathering after curfew to listen to the wireless and deceiving the Germans in every way imaginable. In addition, the characters in both books are presented to the reader in similar detailed plainness, which, at some subliminal level, strengthens the associations made between them. Ebenezer, being an old fisherman who has spent all his life on the island, could not have anything but a raw and blunt narrative style as he recounts his life’s story, despite his unambiguous astuteness. Similarly, linguistic ornaments in the letters written to Juliet by members of the Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Pie Society would be out of place. To this effect, the wonderful prose of M. Shaffer and A. Barrows immensely strengthens the credibility of the letters. In fact it is thanks to the prose, that the detail in which the characters are defined is not in the least restrained by the fact that the story is told via letters only. A few, carefully-selected words are enough to provide a vivid picture of each Guernsey correspondent, even when they do not write about themselves, but rather about village news and gossip. The authors have succeeded in everybody’s unrefined and natural way of speaking almost literally be vocalised through their letters.

All in all, a book highly recommend to everyone with a love for books and reading. A splendid leisure book, that will both entertain and stimulate thoughts.

Comments are closed.