THOUGHTS ON: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows

That’s what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you to another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It’s geometrically progressive – all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment.”

GUERNSEY LIT POT SOCCertain books come into one’s life when most needed. Ideally, there is no deliberate choosing of a title to match one’s mood or predicament – on the contrary, in my experience the most ameliorating literary encounters are pure happenstance. A fortunate synchronicity that brings you and the book together at just the right time.

Late last year my partner and I booked a spring cruise to the Normandy coast, stopping-off at St Peter Port, the capital of Guernsey, en route to Honfleur. This wasn’t to be my first experience of the Channel Islands, for as a teenager I had spent a week on Jersey with my mother; from where we had sailed to the tiny fiefdom of Sark for a day trip. Cars being banned from the island’s roads, we hired bikes and spent a carefree few hours whizzing along quiet lanes, enjoying the fresh air.

In such idyllic surroundings, it was easy to forget these islands had been occupied by Germans for most of the Second World War – the only part of the British Isles to be seized by the Nazi regime – and its people suffered great hardship during this period, almost starving to death before being liberated on 9th May 1945.

During our stay, we visited the Jersey War Tunnels (Hohlgangsanlage 8), a partially completed underground hospital in St. Lawrence, constructed using slave labour from countries like France, Spain, Poland and Russia – the workers supplied by the organization Todt. I shall never forget walking through its claustrophobic passageways, recalling the things I had read about the cruelty endured by the labourers at the hands of their captors. Many perished in these dank tunnels from disease, malnutrition, exhaustion and accidents.

Quite by chance, we met a fisherman from Guernsey staying at our hotel in Saint Helier. He was there alone, having never married (apparently this was far from unusual in his small community), but was enjoying a short break – the first time in his life he had ventured further than a few miles out into the English Channel. He described his beloved homeland with great fondness – a place far less commercialised than its bigger sister – where Victor Hugo lived in exile for 15 years, writing part of Les Misérables at Hauteville House. The French author called the island a “rock of hospitality and freedom”. I vowed there and then to visit Guernsey one day.

All this leads me to the book: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by the American author, Mary Ann Shaffer – an epistolary novel set in 1946, only a few months after the islands were liberated. I had been vaguely aware of its unusual title for some time but took scant notice until the 2018 film adaption created a deal of hoo-ha in the media. I then became sufficiently intrigued to add it to my TBR list, and shortly thereafter, while rummaging through second-hand novels in the Hay Festival Oxfam tent, found a good copy for £3.00. I later agreed to read it for a book challenge in February, and voila! There it was, when needed.

The story is about Juliet Ashton, a 32-year-old, London-based writer who spent the war penning comedic newspaper columns. She has since published a book but is struggling over what to write next when she receives a letter from a Dawsey Adams of Guernsey. He has by chance acquired a book she once owned and, impelled by their mutual love of literature, the two begin to correspond. Dawsey reveals he’s a member of the curiously named Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which piques Juliet’s interest, and before long she finds herself exchanging letters with other members. They share tales with her of life under German Occupation and Juliet soon realises she has the perfect subject for her next project.

Mary Ann Shaffer’s fascination with Guernsey began in 1980 when, on a whim, she flew over to the island while visiting London. She became stranded in heavy fog and, while waiting for a return flight, came across a book called Jersey Under the Jack-Boot. Years later, having been persuaded by her book club to write a novel, she again thought of Guernsey and the war. Once completed, her book was greeted with great enthusiasm, and was snapped-up by publishers in thirteen countries. However, she was at this point diagnosed with cancer and, as her health rapidly deteriorated, her niece, Annie Barrows, helped her finish the book. She passed away in February 2008 but her first and only novel was published posthumously.

Returning to the present day – or to be strictly accurate, 11.30 am on 13th December 2018 – my partner of thirty years was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. We were informed of this in a blunt but not unkindly manner, learning she would require immediate chemotherapy followed by radical surgery.

While coming to terms with this news, I read Mary Ann’s novel and found myself moved by its uniquely humane depiction of inhumanity. The characters were quirky, comical even, but they were also courageous, kind and loyal. Their lives were harsh and their futures unknown, but they endured humiliation with their dignity and humour intact.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society isn’t one of literature’s ‘great’ novels, but it’s warm, insightful and comforting. It’s agreeably offbeat, evoking in one a nostalgia for a way of life, often while describing quite harrowing events in the island’s history. It’s a book I will remember with fondness and gratitude. I will add it to My One-Hundred Book Library.

The question now, I suppose, is will my partner be well enough to visit Guernsey? Her treatment it due to finish shortly before we set sail, and we have every intention of catching that boat. The answer, for now at least, is an optimistic yes!

Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad books.”

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64 replies

  1. Well said, Paula, and now I’m just a little bit teary…best wishes…

  2. Here’s hoping the visit comes to pass

  3. I’m wishing all the best for you two and hoping this trip will happen!

  4. The parallel universe of BC is one I know, and the “new normal” can be unpredictable as you imply. However, as a movie-goer as much as I am a reader, I loved the movie. My best wishes for you both to experience being on Guernsey in person. Take care…

  5. Weaving together your own experiences, the life and illness of the author and the novel itself – your post ends with a hope for the future to which I would like to add my own hope and best wishes for you and your partner.

  6. Such a beautiful post, Paula; thank you for sharing this one in particular. This one has been a favourite of mine since it was first published. I’m so glad that it came to you when it did. Books that happen along at just the right time are rare and special things. I’m looking forward to hearing about that trip to Guernsey when it happens. Just what you both need – something to look forward to 🙂

    (I haven’t forgotten the 100 book library; I still have plans to create mine. One day…)

    • Thank you, Sandra. We’re so much looking forward to that cruise. You’re absolutely right, some books are special. I think that’s what the one-hundred books thing was always about – it’s the ones that moved and inspired you at different times in your life rather than a list of worthy reads. I would love to see your list. 🤗

  7. This is a beautiful post, Paula and I too find this charming book comforting. It’s a story about what makes us human, I think and I avoided the film in case it spoilt my memory of the book. Stories give us hope in troubled times and I hope very much that you both enjoy your trip to Guernsey.

  8. I’m unsure if I’d enjoy the book to be frank, and I mainly associate the Channel Islands with not paying tax, but I really do hope your holiday comes off perfectly, and that you have some much deserved rest in the sun after all you and your partner have endured. Best wishes.

  9. I found this book so lovely and comforting! I felt similarly about AJ Pearce’s more recent Dear Mrs Bird. Best of luck for the trip.

  10. A moving review, particularly for it being so personal. I wish you both all the best, with hopes for the happiest of outcomes, for trip and for health.

  11. Wonderful post Paula. I love the way you wove your experiences and thoughts into your review. I read the book years ago and really enjoyed it, but have not seen the movie. I wish you and your partner all the best and that you will make that trip with your partner. Hold tight to those positive thoughts.

  12. Hoping your trip is memorable. I experienced the book as an audio read on a trip. The reader word thin, but I hung in there. Truthfully, I preferred the movie to the book.

  13. I’ve done a fair few book-inspired travels during the years, though I never managed to find the back of the wardrobe that would open Narnia for me, but that’s another story. One of the last places I have yet to visit is Machu Picchu, Hiram Bingham III inspired.

    Meanwhile, I hope your partner will be sufficiently recovered from chemo to make that planned holiday. Take care of you both.

  14. I saw the movie just few days ago, and I liked it a lot! It’s quite inspirational how you can find beautiful stories in places you don’t expect them. The movie actually made me curious about reading the book, too 🙂

  15. Bookish seredipity can be a great thing, Paula, and this book came to you just at the right time. I’ll be keeping everything crossed that you and your partner make your trip – lovely post. x

  16. I was never really drawn to this but I am now, it sounds lovely. Everything crossed that you and your partner make the trip, Paula. xx

  17. My mother recommended this book to me many years ago and I remember loving it. I do love a good epistolary novel! Another I would recommend is Every Blade of Grass by Thomas Wharton (although, I don’t know how easy it will be to find across the ocean).

    Fingers crossed that you’ll make it on your trip! xo

    • Yes, I rather enjoy epistolary novels. This one reminded me a little of 84 Charing Cross Road – perhaps because it was set in a similar era (immediately after the war). I must seek out Every Blade of Grass. Many thanks for the heads-up!

      I really appreciate your good wishes, Naomi. 😊

  18. I read this book a few years ago and loved it! I wish the best for you and your partner and hope you both make the trip to Guernsey. 🙂

  19. I hope you two get to have a fabulous trip. I will definitely put this on my TBR list. Cheers, Denise

  20. I loved the film and it sounds from your review that it captured the charm of the book pretty well. I hope your partner’s treatment and recovery go well.

  21. I completely agree with you it might not be a ‘great’ literary book but it is for me and would certainly go in my 100 book library (never heard of this, what a good idea!). Last autumn I went to Sark for a few days and absolutely loved it, quietly eccentric and incredibly peaceful – everything i have is crossed for you both

    • It’s so lovely to come across someone else who’s visited Sark – and so recently, too. I’m delighted to learn that it’s still a peaceful place. The Dame of Sark was still in charge when I went but I think things have changed somewhat since then!

      The 100 book library is great fun – although it’s difficult to imagine owning such a ‘small’ collection.

      Thank you so much for your good wishes, Jane. 🤗

      • I was finding out about my old geography teacher who used to live there – it always seemed so exotic! Next year when I read Les Miserables I’m going to try and go back and have a good look at his house on Guernsey, it was under renovation last year.

      • So, not only have you been to Sark but you actually know someone who lived there. I’m impressed!

  22. Keeping fingers crossed for your partner!

  23. Thank you for this wonderful post. I so hope that your partner does well and that there will be trips together in your future, Paula.

  24. I do hope you get on that boat. I completely agree with your assessment of the book. Not great literature but a lovely warm read, and I did enjoy learning about an aspect of war history I’d known nothing about.

  25. I shall keep all fingers and toes crossed that your partner can make it onto that boat. I’ve never been to Guernsey but like you was fascinated by the info in the book about the island’s response to the occupation (to my shame I hadn’t realised they were occupied). Overall I really disliked the book though – just couldn’t get on with the style at all

  26. Chiming in to say I hope you make it there with your partner soon!

  27. A breast cancer survivor of nine years, I, too, am teary eyed after reading this post. Best, best, best to your partner!

    • Thank you so much, Laurie. You more than many will understand all that is happening. I’m so glad to hear you’ve been cancer-free for so long. Your kind and encouraging words are very much appreciated. 🤗

      • Great strides have been made treating breast cancer, and the survival rate, even for those with an aggressive cancer, is high. Anyway, tell your partner that here in Maine, I am rooting for you.

      • You’re right there, Laurie. My partner is receiving a new type of chemo that is proving really successful in many cases. I’ll definitely pass on your kind words to her. Thank you so much.

        Incidentally, we once landed in Maine on our way to Jamaica. Unfortunately we weren’t permitted to leave the airport but I thought it looked a lovely part of the world! 😃

      • Maine really is lovely, even though you only got a limited view from the airport. Again, best, best, best to your partner. May she kick cancer’s butt!


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