Monday, October 14, 2013

Book 135, Guernsey: "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" by Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Barrows

I've decided, with some regret, not to do Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England as separate entities. We do not have a majority of citizens in these regions calling for independence (not even in Scotland!). Also, if I did all four countries within the UK, I'd logically also have to do all seven emirates in the UAE. All fifty states in the US might be pleasant, but Emirati writing still has a long way to go.

But we're on Guernsey now! One of the two Channel Islands - and you'll see on the map below how close they are to France, and thus how understandable it is that they're regarded as a separate from the UK. Also understandable is how they were occupied by the Nazis during WWII, the Brits tactically abandoning them for the sake of their own behinds.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Pie Society is a description of that occupation, narrated through the letters and telegrams of the single, thirty-something year-old writer Juliet Ashton in 1946. She's a London girl, the recipient of recent fame and success after the publication of her humorous wartime newspaper columns - because people did need humour during the war - and now on track for her next book. 

One day she receives a letter from a certain Dawsey Adams, a Guernsey fisherman who's very much enjoyed a second-hand copy of Charles Lamb's Selected Essays of Elia which once belonged to her. He mentions the existence of the eponymous literary club during the war - at first an excuse to explain to the Germans why they were out so late during curfew, but later a coping mechanism (the pie being another such coping mechanism). The two commence a correspondence, and gradually Juliet comes to realise her destiny is to go to Guernsey and chronicle the experience of the war there.

It's honestly rather lovely to read an epistolary novel of this sort, recalling a time before e-mail and Whatsapp (though I really have no idea how one-sentence letters exchanged on the same day work - these people do not have footmen, after all). Principal author Mary Ann Shaffer has a wonderful range of voices, vivacious and folksy and prissy, bringing to life the cast of her novel. 

And what a cast it is. On the island, there's the poultice-brewing wise woman Isola Pribby, the haughty Adelaide Addison, the worried half-Jewish butler John Booker - and off the island, there's the frighteningly charismatic American publisher Markham V. Reynolds, and of course the terribly fun Juliet herself. Plus the unseen figure of Elizabeth - this young independent woman who invented the ruse of the literary club and was eventually arrested by the Nazis towards the end of the war, and who ends up being the subject of Juliet's book.

Mind you, this isn't high literature, by certain standards. The cover above shows how marketable it is as  pure and simple chick-lit - period too! An adaptation of Pride and Prejudice's love story: Dawsey is Darcy and Markham is Wickham. But it is so full of story, and texture, and joy, which is why it was a bestseller, and what I'm having so much trouble with in my own writing.

One final note: Shaffer was the original author of the book - wrote it as her first complete novel when she was an old woman, years after being stranded in a bookshop during a foggy Guernsey excursion and learning all about the occupation. However, once the novel had been optioned, changes were suggested - and she was seriously sick - so her niece, Annie Barrows, stepped in and filled her shoes, recreating the familiar style of storytelling she'd heard so much during family visits. I rather like that. Two women, one beginning a story, the other ending it. But there'll no more Shaffer novels, I'm afraid: she's dead and gone as of 2008, just before the book was published in its current form.

I actually finished this book last week - have been trying to keep up with my own reading in the meantime. It's a quick read, as is my next book, so I'll probably have my next update up pretty damn quick.

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

Representative quote: As the mail boat lurched into the harbour, I saw St Peter Port rising up from the sea, with a church at the top like a cake decoration, and I realised that my heart was galloping. However much I tried to persuade myself it was the thrill of the scenery, I knew better. All those people I've come to know and even love a little, waiting to see - me. And I, without any paper to hide behind. Sidney, in these past two or three years, I have become better at writing than living - and think what you do to my writing. On the page, I'm perfectly charming, but that's just a trick I've learnt. It has nothing to do with me.

Next book: Gerald Durrell's Menagerie Manor, from Jersey.

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