The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffere & Annie Barrows – REVIEW

We recently visited Guernsey, and most of the touristy shops made a big thing out of selling the book (often marketed as “the book of the film”) or the DVD. Of course the book came out first, and on our return when a friend offered to lend me either the book or the DVD or both, I chose the book.

First of all, this is an extremely clever book. It’s what they call an epistolary novel – which means that everything is done through letters or other documents – in this case, letters and telegrams. What this means is that all events are seen very subjectively, through one or more pairs of eyes.

What makes this even more interesting is that there are two stories in the book: one which concerns the characters writing the letters at the time the letters are being written (1946); and one concerning another character who was around a few years previously, and who never makes an appearance. This means that very often, the reader learns of events at third hand (Juliet Ashton, the primary narrator, writes to her publisher, giving her interpretation of someone else’s interpretation of memories of events that happened several years earlier).

Juliet (with whom I found some sort of identity, her surname being the same as mine), as you might expect from an established author, might be expected to have some sort of facility with words, and she does. In answer to a query about whether she has a telephone:

I do have a telephone. It’s in Oakley Street under a pile of rubble that used to be my flat. I’m only renting here, and my landlady, Mrs Olive Burns, possesses the sole telephone on the premises. If you would like to chat with her, I can give you her number.

The different characters all have their own voices – after a while, you don’t need to read the “From/To” headings to know both who is writing, and to whom they are writing. The characters develop as the relationships between them and their correspondents develop and deepen.

Cornet Castle
Castle Cornet, St Peters Port, Guernsey. Herm in the middle distance, French coast at the back.

The stories of the German occupation of Guernsey are eye-opening, not only to Juliet and her English friends, but to many readers, who are unaware of the hardships that the Islanders (and the German occupiers!) went through, expecially after D-Day, when no food at all reached the Channel Islands from outside.

Juliet is blind to something that becomes stunningly obvious to others – and to the reader, but it’s done in a way that does not make her seem stupid or blind to her own feelings – and it doesn’t detract from the very clever technique, as the reader wants to know if she ever realises the truth.

The plot(s) is/are a little sentimental at times, but so much of the story has such an emotional core and the setting is one immediately following an emotionally harrowing time for all the protagonists, that much may be forgiven.

Having read the synopsis of the film (after having read the book), I am glad that I chose the printed word. It seems that the film is too film-y to do the story justice. I’d vaguely heard of the book while I was living in Japan, but it hadn’t really registered (there are probably a lot of titles like that). Anyway, a recommended read.