Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Book Club - The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

If I had to choose just one word to describe this novel? ... Charming. Without a doubt! I loved it, and actually felt rather disappointed and lost when I finished the last page. I found this somewhat surprising as I originally felt sure the novel wouldn't live up to its unusual and intriguing title.

The story is set in 1946 and revolves around author Juliet Ashton who is searching for inspiration for her second book. Through a series of coincidences Juliet begins corresponding with members of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, who lived through the recent war under German Occupation. As they exchange stories about their experiences of the war and their love of reading, friendships start to develop. In her new friends Juliet discovers inspiration for both her novel and her life.

I've always been a fan of historical novels, as I love being transported into a different period, a different way of life. I revel in the idea that I am learning a little about a historic event without having to slave over a factual history book for hours (not that this doesn't have its own advantages). So I was excited when I realised this novel was one of my favourite genres. I looked forward to being transported into 1940s Britain, learning about life during and after the war.

Yet, despite this, I still had reservations when I started reading the book. The whole novel is told through letters the characters send to one another, which had me convinced that within 50 pages I would be struggling to read on. I thought the format would be tiresome, dull and slow-paced. I was also concerned that this type of narration would struggle to create quality characterisation, meaning I would be unable to engage with characters to the degree I desired. My concerns were quickly proved unfounded. The letter format was like a breath of fresh air; it created an original, lively and intimate narrative tone, as well as capturing a variety of fully formed individual, and sometimes quirky, characters.

I am sure critics may suggest the novel should have focused more prominently, if not fully, on the seriousness of the Nazi occupation. I disagree. For me, there had to be a careful balance between the real heartbreak of the war and the strength of hope and friendship in the face of difficult times. And Shaffer and Barrows achieved this perfectly. There is no avoidance of the war - the awfulness of the concentration camps is confronted head on; but overall the reader is left with a sense of admiration for the human spirit, its drive for survival, but also its desire for what is fair and right.

Despite dealing with some difficult and complex topics, the novel never seems hard going. Instead, the story flows effortlessly, both informing and enchanting the reader with surprise twists in the plot and intelligent references to poets and novelists of the past. It creates a delightful image of Guernsey life, and leaves you wanting to discover more about the island and its history. It is amusing, original, moving and well written.

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