Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. There several different ways in which an author can tell a story. One of those ways is by using letters, cables, and, more recently, email. That approach shares a lot of character development without a lot of narrative detail. Let’s take a look at that sort of novel today, and turn the spotlight on Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’ The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.
Juliet Ashton is a writer in 1946 London. She’s gotten some notice and had some success, and she and her publisher, Sidney Stark, want to take advantage of that and move on to the next book. But it’s not making much progress. Then, she gets a letter from a man named Dawsey Adams, who lives on Guernsey. He has a copy of a book that she once owned, a book of Charles Lamb’s essays. Dawsey is a fan of Lamb’s work, and wants to read more of it. Since there are no more bookshops on Guernsey, Dawsey wants the name of a London bookseller where he might find more of Lamb’s work. Juliet writes back to Dawsey, and sends him a book by Lamb, and the two begin a correspondence.
Through those letters, Juliet learns a few things about the German occupation of Guernsey, and some things about what Dawsey calls the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. What she hears intrigues her, and she decides to write a magazine article about it. Dawsey likes the idea and agrees to have some of the other society members write, too. Little by little, Juliet forms what you might call pen-pal relationships with those members. As she does, she sees that there are some fascinating stories to be told. She also feels a very close bond to her Guernsey friends, although they’ve never met in person. So, she decides to visit Guernsey herself.
When she gets to Guernsey, Juliet finds that there is a great deal of interesting history, and a network of relationships among the people who live there. And, as she gets to know those people better, she uncovers some intriguing stories and secrets. And she finds herself especially drawn to the character of Elizabeth McKenna, who was arrested and taken to a Nazi concentration camp, leaving her daughter, Kit, behind. Elizabeth’s story becomes a sort of central focus as Juliet slowly discovers how the society has bound the people of Guernsey together through some awful times.
This isn’t a crime novel as such, although there are crimes committed in it. But there are some secrets and mysteries to uncover; and, in that sense, Juliet searches for the truth, just as sleuths do. And as she learns more, so do readers.
One of the most important elements in the novel is the group of society members. Each has a different character, and each has flaws and strengths. But they have in common a love of books and reading that has sustained them. And they are loyal to each other. The bonds among the members are clear throughout the novel. Although Juliet is, especially at first, an outsider, the society members are not portrayed as quaint, eccentric, or worse. Rather, Juliet sees them as fellow bibliophiles, and develops friendships with them.
That love of books is woven through the novel. Readers who enjoy mentions of books, authors, and so on will appreciate that. There’s even a mention of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple.
Much of the novel’s focus is on Guernsey, and post-war life on that island is portrayed in some detail. There are still wartime shortages, and most of the animals that used to live on the island are gone, killed for food during the war. But there is a sense of hope as the residents begin to get things they haven’t had in a long time. And all of the residents love the island’s natural beauty. It’s a unique lifestyle, and it’s depicted clearly.
As Juliet learns about the island’s history, especially the German occupation, readers get a sense of what those years were like. There are several descriptions of some of the things that happened to the residents. For instance, there were strict curfews enforced, and those who didn’t abide by them were arrested and could be sent to a prison camp. The Germans commandeered food and supplies, leaving the residents with nearly nothing. Other things happened as well. Needless to say, most of the residents have very little good to say about the Germans. And parts of the story are quite dark, as we learn more about the occupation.
That said, though, a few of the residents also tell stories of compassion, and not all of the Germans are portrayed as ‘bad guys.’ There are stories of courage, too, in the face of the war. And there’s some wit to lighten the story.
The story is told through letters and cables, through which we get to know the characters’ personalities. We also learn the backstories of several of the characters as they’re referred to in the letters. Readers who prefer a strictly chronological telling of events will notice this.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is the story of a small island, the people who live there, and the writer who becomes part of their group. It tells the history of Guernsey during a dark part of its history, and it explores the bonds that keep people together during terrible times. But what’s your view? Have you read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 4 February/Tuesday, 5 February – Arab Jazz – Karim Miské
Monday, 11 February/Tuesday, 12 February – Only the Innocent – Rachel Abbott
Monday, 18 February/Tuesday, 19 February – The Blue Hour – Alonso Cueto