If that title doesn’t make you want to find out more, then your natural curiosity is sadly deficient. Elaine at Random Jottings obviously felt the same, and I am indebted to her for asking Bloomsbury to send me a proof copy to review of Mary Ann Shaffer‘s novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. In fact, lovely Steph from Bloomsbury sent 12 books, but my Reader’s Block struck at the same time, and I’m only now able to pay proper attention to the beautiful pile of books. This one had to come first.
It’s been a while since I read an epistolary novel – I think the last was Fanny Burney’s Evelina, (that is letters, isn’t it?) or perhaps the joyous Pamela, which repeats the same letter more or less every page anyway (oo, almost caught by my master in some thin disguise; wasn’t quite…). My sentences do tend to wander off into the obscure, don’t they! ANYWAY, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society takes the form of letters to and from writer Juliet Ashton, in 1946. She has become popular under her pseudonym Izzy Bickerstaff, writing Izzy Bickerstaff Goes To War – which put me in mind of EM Delafield and The Provincial Lady in Wartime, which is all to the good. She describes herself in one of her letters, saving me the trouble of doing so:
‘I am thirty-three years old… In a good mood, I call my hair chestnut with gold glints. In a bad mood, I call it mousy brown. It wasn’t a windy day [in a photo]; my hair always looks like that. Naturally curly hair is a curse, and don’t ever let anyone tell you different. My eyes are hazel. While I am slender, I am not tall enough to suit me.’
I think I fell in love with Juliet when she revealed that a)she had also written an unpopular biography of my favourite Bronte sister, Anne – and b)that she broke up with her fiance when she found him ‘sitting on the low stool in front of my bookcase, surrounded by cardboard boxes. He was sealing the last one with tape and string. There were eight boxes – eight boxes of my books bound up and ready for the basement!’ What is more, he’d replaced her books with his sporting trophies. Obviously he had to go.
All this has happened before the novel opens – Juliet is in the throes of trying to find material for a new book. Her correspondance is with her loveable publisher Sidney and his sister Sophie, until out of the blue a letter arrives from a Guernsey farmer, Dawsey Adams, who has found her address inside a secondhand copy of Charles Lamb. Juliet gets the idea to write about Guernsey under Nazi Occupation – and strikes up a correspondance with several Guernsey residents (shy Dawsey; eccentric Isola; fisherman Eben) and decides to visit them to find out more. The letters continue to those back home, including would-be lover Markham Reynolds, and Juliet’s life becomes increasingly bound up in Guernsey and its inhabitants.
So what is ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’? To cover up the eating of an illicit pig (one of the things Nazi Occupants forbade) quick-thinking Elizabeth says that they were at a literary society – to make the story believable, they start one up. And the sustenance is in the form of potato peel pie, being all the food they could find. Elizabeth – who was sent away to a Continental prison during the war, and has not returned – becomes the central figure of these people and the novel, despite her protracted absence.
Like many people, I suspect, I knew little about the wartime occupation of the Channel Islands – Mary Ann Shaffer’s novel is so illuminating about the conditions and experiences of those being controlled, but more than that, she creates unique and sympathetic characters. There are some upsetting details, but never gratuitously harrowing – Mary Ann Shaffer obviously knows how much more affecting it is to give us lovable characters and then see how the situation changed them. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is full of such characters – I worried that there were so many letter-writers, but they swiftly became identifiable and dear to me. Above all else, the novel is warm, funny and lovingly written. Bloomsbury plan a large-scale advertising campaign for this novel when it is published in August (sorry! you’ll have to wait) and no novel deserves it more – it is sad that Shaffer passed away before she could see her novel published, but she died knowing that it would be, which must have been a great joy.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is something special – Juliet Ashton is a protagonist with just the right levels of humour, fondness and self-deprecation (‘Oh, I can see it all now: no one will buy my books, and I’ll ply Sidney with tattered, illegible manuscripts, which he’ll pretend to publish out of pity. Doddering and muttering, I’ll wander the streets carrying my pathetic turnips in a string bag, with newspaper tucked into my shoes’.) The characters are an ensemble cast, you’ll love the lot of ’em, and fall in love with Guernsey too. I confidently predict that potato peel pie will be plat du jour up and down the country all August. Maybe.