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.”
Certain 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.”