Notes on Books: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Very few completely epistolary novels in the contemporary scenario have made an impact. I’d like to think it’s because this traditional form is not pervasively present in our lives today. After all, no one writes letters anymore; would anyone read books that are a bunch of letters? The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, I am happy to say, is an exception.

Set during World War II, the plot of the book centers around Juliet Ashton, the writer and columnist who discovers a literary society with an amusing name on the Guernsey Islands, which lie on the English Channel. Ashton was in search for material for her column and she finds it when corresponding with the members of this society. Entwined in the ups and downs of her professional life is her personal life. Ashton starts a correspondence but is soon so attached to the members of the literary club that she visits the island for a longer book-length project. All the developments are shown through letters and telegrams, when communication is urgent. As the letters go back and forth, Mary Ann Shaffer’s wit and intelligence sparkles through the twenty odd characters whose voices pepper the book. This is a charming book that reminds me a lot of Eva Ibbotson’s A Song for Summer, another warm and sparkling book set during the Second World War. Definitely and without any sense of irony, this is a feel-good book that explores how to survive a war in the face of material and (for the want of a better word) moral deprivation. However, that does not mean it shies away from the complexity of war. Yet, a certain sense of innocence clings to this book even when discussing the tortures of concentration camps. It’s also a love story on many levels – between people as well as people and their books. Some of the best passages deal with what books mean to the members of the literary society, also referred to as the Islanders. The poetry of their feelings comes through even though they might not deal with literature on a professional or even daily basis. It’s a love letter to literature.

We get to know in the Afterword that Shaffer’s niece Annie Barrows had taken over when Shaffer’s ill health prevents her from completing the book. However, that doesn’t impact the text adversely: the voices of characters have a unity that sets them together and a diversity that differentiates them. It is an accomplishment that the two authors should be proud of. There is one grievance that I have: I would have liked a small introduction and a cast of characters right at the beginning of the book maybe in a Foreword or Introduction to keep track of the long list of characters at least till the reader gets used to them. Once you get the hang of who’s writing to whom, it’s utterly enjoyable.

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