The book-a-week challenge continues with The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.
There are wonderful things that happen when you fall in love with a novel. You read words as if they were meant only for you. If you must stop reading, you cannot wait for the moment you can return. Once finished, a hole opens inside you only the book can fill. You cannot wait to begin reading the novel again, and you treasure the notion that you now belong to a secret society that also treasures the novel, and you are certain of your admission to the society. Its members will see that you care for the novel as much as they do.
This doesn’t happen often for me. Then I read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Barrows. This is an epistolary novel, mostly comprised of letters written in the aftermath of the second world war by a cast of British characters who, beginning with a curiosity about the British author Charles Lamb, and the retelling of a plot to foil Germans on the occupied island of Guernsey, find their lives unknowingly intertwined. New friendships formed, old friendships are deepened, and the horror of war is revealed with grit and directness.
Much like the novel’s heroine, Juliet Ashton, Mary Ann Shaffer was somewhat at a loss for a writing project when the German occupation of the Channel Island of Guernsey came to the fore. For Shaffer, it was the story of the five-year occupation from 1940 to 1945 and the hardship endured by the island’s inhabitants. For Shaffer’s main character Ashton, it was how a book of hers came to be in Guernsey. She receives a letter from a man who would rather live with the thought of writing to stranger than live with the thought of not knowing more about Charles Lamb.
This is the stuff that makes book lovers lock the doors, draw the curtains, unplug the phone, and settle in for a long read.
And if a reader cares a whit about reading a novel about that war, history, the island’s occupation, brave inhabitants surviving the atrocities, of concentration camps, random cruelties and deliberate acts of bravery, a long read won’t be long enough. The characters become your friends. Their lives become a keen interest. You wonder about them beyond the scope of anything revealed on the printed page. You wonder how you got along without them for so long, and what they may be up to when you are not visiting them. They become friends, and when you’ve finished, you know the novel has now become a treasure to revisit often.
Shaffer crafted a winning story that is brilliantly revealed by letter, telegram, and all manner of written word. Her health prevented her from completing the project, but she was fortunate in having a talented writer for a niece in Annie Barrows to see the novel through to publication. Shaffer did not live long enough to witness this. But is seems to me her novel is one long letter she left behind for others to discover, enjoy, and share, much like the events sparked by a book once owned by Juliet Ashton, which surfaced in a Guernsey farmer’s home.
How I enjoy thinking this is so.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.
5 stars out of 5.
Available in all formats everywhere.
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