Juliet feels the inexorable pull of Guernsey and these friends as she exchanges letters, laughs and literary loves with the society members. We also feel her pain at the disappearance of the fearless Elizabeth – a woman she only knows through the second-hand tales of others – who was sent to the mainland and imprisoned after being caught harbouring one of the Todt slave labourers whom the Germans had brought to the islands in order to fortify them. More and more, Juliet wishes to visit these people that she feels she knows and loves, and at the same time escape the overtures of the glib, rich and suffocating Markham Reynolds.
We are constantly drawn back into the horrors of war; there is always the sense that whilst the war is history, it is not yet over. Amelia writes to Juliet saying that ‘life does not go on’, rather, “It’s death that goes on”, but she also glimpses ‘small islands of hope’. And out of the ashes of war come tales of good Germans, such as the doctor, Captain Hellman, who befriends Dawsey and falls in love with Elizabeth. They have a child, Kit, who now grows up without her parents, but with all the members acting as her guardians. When Juliet travels to Guernsey, she quickly takes to Kit, and Kit to her, and all of a sudden Juliet sees her life through the prism of her existence on Guernsey rather than her flat in London.
We are obliquely offered the Society’s members’ views on a varied group of literary authors throughout the book: The Bronte sisters, Seneca – a Roman philosopher, Charles Lamb, Shakespeare, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales amongst others. There is much mirth surrounding the impact these authors and books have on the various members’ lives. There is also the delightful – and naturally lively – appearance of Oscar Wilde who soothes the broken heart of a young girl on the island after her cat is killed. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is suffused with wit and verve, much in the vein of Jane Austen. Indeed Juliet’s love interests in the form of the slippery Markham and the strong, silent Dawsey clearly mirror Wickham and Darcy in both name and nature. It does not shy away from the harsh truths of war and the fate of Elizabeth is keenly felt by all; in this sense – the weaving of light and dark – it escapes being a mere romantic whimsy. However, much in the way of Pride and Prejudice, we are left with a very happy ending, as befits this charming read.
It is a perfect book club choice, and it also proves the magic of life – for it is Mary Ann Shaffer’s only book, written aged 70, written with the cajoling and encouragement of a group of her friends and writing-group companions, and published only after her death with the final touches of her niece Annie Barrows. It is a testament to perseverance, joy, the creative spirit, and the encouragement that only the best of family & friends can provide us.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.
Allen & Unwin
265 pages (with Authors’ Acknowledgements and Afterword)