For a while, it seemed between the WaR book club and my own selections, every book seemed to be about World War II. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows didn’t break the chain.
This book also taught several of us something new about writing. It was the first epistolary novel — a novel written as letters from one person to another — that some of us had read. It was a geography lesson for me. I had heard of the Channel Islands and knew vaguely that they were part of Great Britain, but I had no idea they were so close to France.
Like All the Light We Cannot See (by Anthony Doerr), “Guernsey” shows the war as it was for island residents who were, by virtue of Nazi occupation, isolated from the rest of the people of their homeland. The letters, which were exchanged after the war, explained through the eyes of various individuals how the literary society functioned, both on the surface and behind the scenes.
An especially interesting element of the book is a character who never writes a letter, for reasons that become clear in the reading, but can easily be thought of as the protagonist of the story.
The writing is largely informal and chatty, as letters between friends might be, although the two writers who begin the book haven’t yet met. And their relationship developed largely through the business of book selling between the “big island” (apologies to Hawaii) of England and its little satellite, Guernsey, in the English Channel.
One letter-writer, Sidney, offers, “I’ve just received Izzy’s sales figures from London and the Home Counties—they are excellent. Again, congratulations!
“Don’t fret about English Foibles; better that your enthusiasm died now than after six months spent writing about bunnies. The crass commercial possibilities of the idea were attractive, but I agree that the topic would soon grow horribly fey. Another subject—one you’ll like—will occur to you.
“Dinner one evening before you go? Say when.”
And Juliet responds, “Yes, lovely—can it be somewhere on the river? I want oysters and champagne and roast beef, if obtainable; if not, a chicken will do. I am very happy that Izzy’s sales are good. Are they good enough that I don’t have to pack a bag and leave London?”
Because I listened to the book (narrated by Paul Boehmer, Susan Duerden, Rosalyn Landor, John Lee, Juliet Mills), I had both words and voices to distinguish one character from another. I found the voice team to be excellent.
Not all of the letter writers are equally informal, but each has his or her own voice as a tale of friendship, deceit, loyalty and bravery unfolds through the British postal service.
P.S. The pie recipe is included, but the website doesn’t give it high marks.