I have just finished reading the most wonderful book. The kind of book that makes you sigh in happiness as you close it for the final time. The kind of book that has you dreaming about the characters, speaking the same way they speak and doing things with your day which they would do.
I had seen Mary Ann Shaffer’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society many times in various bookshops, and never once had I thought it was a book I would like to read. I’m not sure exactly what caused this prejudice, maybe it seemed too light, or maybe I was put off by the epistolary style of the novel, or I simply wasn’t sure the plot would hold me. For whatever reason, I thought it wasn’t a book that I wanted to spend my money on. But that is the wonderful thing about libraries – they don’t cost any money. I become very indiscriminate about books in the library, and have been even more so during this long, hot month. So The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society made it’s way into my house on loan, and I am so, so glad it did.
This is not an ambitious book. Rather, it takes pride in it’s simplicity. It is hard to explain the story in a way that really captures what it’s about, but the blurb does a relatively good job of it:
It’s 1946, and as Juliet Ashton sits at her desk in her Chelsea flat, she is stumped. A writer of witty newspaper columns during the war, she can’t think of what to write next. Out of the blue, she receives a letter from one Dawsey Adams of Guernsey – but chance he’s acquired a book Juliet once owned – and, emboldened by their mutual love of books, they begin a correspondence. Dawsey is a member of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and it’s not long before the rest of the members write to Juliet – including the gawky Isola, who makes home-made potions, Eben, the fisherman who loves Shakespeare, and Will Thisbee, rag-and-bone man and chef of the famous potato peel pie. As letters fly back and forth, Juliet comes to know the extraordinary personalities of the Society and their lives under the German occupation of the island. Entranced by their stories, Juliet decides to visit the island to meet them properly – and unwittingly turns her life upside down.
I was delighted, but not particularly surprised, to find that the author was in her 70s when she wrote this book. It makes absolute sense that this book was written by someone with the wisdom and hindsight of age. Shaffer’s writing is not bogged down by the stresses and anxieties of youth. There is no concern of money, no drama in relationships, no drive to be eternally busy. The only problem is the aftermath of the German occupation of Guernsey, and this is treated with dignity. What a gift, to be able to write of World War II with gravity and compassion, without making the reader depressed.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a sigh of relief. A reminder that life is wonderful. A call to enjoy that which is simple and to find beauty among heartache.