- The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
- The Dial Press, 288 pp.
Such a pity Mary Ann Shaffer is not around to enjoy her celebrity! Shaffer died in February of this year and thus missed her own miracle—best-sellerdom for a first book written by an already “mature” librarian, former bookseller, and unpublished, aspiring writer. The good news, however, is that her opus is engaging, ingenious and ahead of the publishing game.
Not only is the novel bound to be a favorite of book clubs, it is paradoxically devoted to an oddly-designated book club in Guernsey, that of the title, a group invented on the spot by farmers and fishermen there when they were caught drunk after curfew, by their Nazi occupiers during the World War II.
Their winding tale develops as they successfully confound their German invaders and learn in the bargain how to amuse themselves by reading books.
Its heroine is a successful journalist and Londoner, Juliet Ashton, exhausted and devastated by her times, who has been burned out and left homeless by the heavy bombing of the Blitz. Her newspaper columns under the title, “Izzy Biggerstaff Goes To War,” are newly-collected by her publisher as a book, which Juliet is now touring. And it is during these triumphant appearances that her ennui, her discontent with life, surfaces.
Shaffer, together with her niece, Annie Barrows (who joined her to help finish the book as Shaffer’s health declined) open the novel with their heroine informing her publisher, Sidney Stark, of the situation. That letter commences what is to become their novel about the war years upon Guernsey Island and the brutality of their Nazi occupiers.
Juliet reveals straight out on page 1 that despite the publisher’s firm making good money on her work, she simply can’t go on as she has:
“…my head and heart just aren’t in it. Dear as Issy Bickerstaff is—and was—to me, I don’t want to write anything else under that name. I don’t want to be considered a light-hearted journalist anymore. I do acknowledge that making readers laugh—or at least chuckle during the war was no mean feat, but I don’t want to do it anymore….”
She is clearly seeking something altogether fresh. And we witness how oddly this next enthusiasm comes into being. Indeed, it evolves into an epistolary novel!
And that is suggested by a letter: this time from a complete stranger, Dawsey Adams, a farmer of Guernsey in those Channel Islands. His query is altogether innocent. He explains that he has Miss Ashton’s address because it is on the flyleaf of an old book that once belonged to her, “The Selected Essays of Elia,” written by the author whose name in real life was Charles Lamb.
He explains further that there were currently no bookstores to be found on Guernsey—the time is just after World War II—and he had the idea of writing to her for a favor. Could he perchance take the liberty of asking for her suggestion of the name of a bookshop in London where he might find some more of Lamb’s writings to be mailed to him there in Guernsey?
Adams goes on to confess his new love for Lamb’s work, which he had discovered quite by accident and which had managed “to make him laugh during the German Occupation,” “especially when he (Lamb) wrote about the roast pig.” Her correspondent adds that “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society came into being because of a roast pig we had to keep secret from the German soldiers….” Hence his current kinship with Mr. Lamb.
Indeed, the farmer’s letter had surprised and delighted Juliet since she too was a lover of Charles Lamb. Moreover, she marveled that he had addressed it to her former home, which no longer stood; yet somehow the letter had managed to reach her in her rented flat; better still, to cheer her out of her newly-dispirited state.
In fact, it was the latter’s additional offering about their odd-sounding book club that made our heroine just curious enough to write him back at once; and moreover to do so with a spontaneous confession in her note that she herself considered Lamb’s favorite phrase to be: “buz, buz, buz, bum, bum, bum, wheeze, wheeze, wheese, fen, fen, fen,tinky, tinky, tinky, cr’annnch!” (uttered while the author was soused.)
She generously dispatches the gift of a biography of Charles Lamb, as well as the news that she has placed an order for his Selected Letters too, in which he might find more of that particular nonsense of Lamb’s she often enjoyed.
So does this epistolary novel embark. Our heroine is drawn into the life of Dawsey Adams and his many literary companions on Guernsey (who write to her as well with particulars of how they managed to survive their years under the Germans). And Juliet Ashton’s voice carries her own sardonic tone as she also communicates with publisher and friends by letter.
Thus do these authors engage us in their storytelling, their sharp character development via the several voices we hear loudly sounding off to our heroine. Yet this is but a beginning for these novelists. They are more ambitious still. Shaffer and Barrows are actually talking books here, to booklovers and readers everywhere, above all, they are talking to writers. Issy Biggerstaff himself, the subject of Juliet Ashton’s newspaper columns, goes back to a figure invented long ago by Jonathan Swift (not, as the authors claim, to Joseph Addison, who actually borrowed that name from his friend Swift’s satires to use in his magazine, The Tattler).
So we’re immediately entangled here not only with Charles Lamb, but with the lively and often snarky opinions proffered by her Guernsey correspondents on writers as varied as the Bronte sisters, Thomas Carlyle, Wilfred Owen, William Wordsworth, and Jane Austen, among others.
We see further evidence of this preoccupation when later on in the novel and out of the blue, one character, Isola Prissy, introduces her Granny ‘Pheen’s mysterious letters, those she had had in her early youth from a “kind stranger” who had once stopped his carriage on the road when he noted the little girl sitting there alone and weeping. They kept coming as comfort from him when he learned of the harsh death of her beloved cat at the hands of her cruel father. The letters were kept, Isola reports, in a tin biscuit over the years, from which Granny ‘Pheen had often read to her young granddaughter as bedtime stories.
When Juliet Ashton subsequently examines them, she notes the odd signature upon every one, “O.F.O’F.W.W.” and wonders to her publisher, astonished and out loud, “Could it possibly be that Isola has inherited eight letters written by Oscar Wilde?” She next tells him she is “beside myself” over the possibility! And then, fills us in with the scholarly information that Wilde’s full name was the “preposterous” Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Will Wilde! All of which drives her to ask of her publisher to find out whether Wilde had actually ever been over to Guernsey?
There is a breathless quality to the pacing of Shaffer and Barrows’ novel. It never drags: and although this might seem a quibble, what did occur to this reader—more than once while reading—was to demand—with Beaumont and Fletcher—that they “plot me no plots!”
Certainly, the author’s account of Guernsey life under the Nazi yoke might have sufficed for the opus, with its horrific details about the deliberate starvation of young slave-laborers, Polish prisoners known as the “Todt workers,” to say nothing of their depiction of the deprivation of the islanders of their entire crops, year after year, to starve them as well. Or, consider the touchingly described scenes of the heroism these Guernsey islanders displayed in the face of such an enemy together with the brutal treatment they were given when arrested.
In the life and times of one Elizabeth McKenna alone, they have managed to give us a heroic portrait of a remarkable figure whose her every action proves true to her neighbors and friends on the island, whose presence and influence is ever felt by Guernsey folk (a character who never even appears in the book!).
One further cavil: In a work whose tone is so clever, whose voice is one tongue-glued in cheek—too often their tale teetered at the brink. At such instances, one felt in danger of its plunging into treacle, drowning in saccharine—so goody-goody and pat seemed their characterizations.
But no matter. While they can boast of a heroine who approaches a Beginners Cook Book for Girl Guides and calls it “just the thing for her” because its Guernsey writer commences with the advice, “when adding eggs break the shells first,” these novelists need have little fear. They can count on best-sellerdom all the way!