December 2012

Mary Ann Shaffer was an American author who decided, on a whim, to visit Guernsey while visiting London. After she landed in Guernsey a heavy fog descended leaving her stranded at the airport and to occupy her time, she bought a book about the occupation of the Channel Islands.

The result of the consequent fascination is The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. This tells the story of Juliet, a young author living in London in 1946. Juliet receives a letter from Dawsey Adams, in Guernsey. He has a book that once belonged to her, by Charles Lamb, and is keen to read more by Lamb. In post-war Guernsey though, books are hard to come by so he is writing to Juliet to enlist her help. He happens to mention the literary society, and Juliet’s interest is grabbed. Entering into correspondence with Dawsey and a number of other members of the society, Juliet finds out more and more about life in occupied Guernsey and becomes increasingly fond of the members.

Told in letters between Juliet and the islanders, among others, the first part of this book is an exploration of the occupation of the Channel Islands by Germany. This section of the book is historically accurate – the author even bringing in details such as German troops mistaking a convoy of lorries containing tomatoes for army vehicles during a bombing raid. The misery of the islanders is not glossed over, but neither is it wallowed in and there are some lovely touches of humour. A key character is Elizabeth, who was deported from the island for helping a POW imprisoned on the island. Through Elizabeth, we learn both of the horrors of the war, as she is deported to a concentration camp, but also of the humanity of individual German soldiers, via her relationship with a Captain on the Island.

Juliet’s correspondence with the islanders leads to her visiting the island for herself and the second part of the book tells of her time on the island and her acceptance by the literary society.

The book is also partly a discussion of the value of reading. The society itself forms as result of a group of islanders breaking curfew. After being caught by a German officer they have to invent, on the spot, a reason for being out and thus is the Literary Society born (the Potato Peel Pie part of the name is a result of the chronic food shortages). A group of people, some of whom have never read much in their lives, are suddenly catapulted into a world of literature and the resulting ways in which they use it and relate to it form an ongoing theme of the book.

The letter form of this book was not to everyone’s taste. Some members found it a little patronising and there were several areas in the book which struck some as unrealistic. On the whole however, the majority of people enjoyed the book and found it a good insight into life in occupied Guernsey.

On January 10th we will read the play Table Manners from The Norman Conquests, a trilogy by Alan Ayckbourn


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