June’s review: The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary-Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows

Written entirely as a series of letters, this novel begins with a young columnist writing a novel following the end of the Second World War. A young man from the Channel island of Guernsey writes to her asking for reading recommendations, and a friendship is born. Their correspondence continues, based on a profound love for reading and, in many ways, a joyful relief to find human connection after the years of fearful wartime disconnection. This correspondence is soon joined by others in the island’s literature club, and soon the writer visits Guernsey, where she learns what life was like for the islanders during the harsh war years. Their letters are suffused with tongue-in-cheek English humour, making it much easier to read than other novels of letters, which are often long-winded and one-sided. The sense of post-war relief in the character’s correspondence is such that, although there are anecdotes of the atrocities suffered by the islanders during the war, it is does not overshadow their warmth and kinship, and the determination of many character to sympathise with the German soldiers, who were often as forced into the conflict as the islanders.

This is epitomised when one of the characters falls in love with a German soldier of strong compassion and character, and their subsequent love child becomes a symbol of post-war healing. There is more than a little romance in the story, indeed in many ways it could be called a romance novel, except that the setting and characterisation are integral and immaculate, and the romance carefully crafted and heart-flutteringly exciting, reminiscent of Jane Austen’s novels: gentle, beautiful, and steeped in social politics.

The story of how this novel came into being adds to its grand appeal among readers. The two authors listed, Mary-Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, are aunt and niece respectively. Shaffer was a librarian and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is her first and only work; sadly she passed away before seeing it published and the final editing process was undertaken by her niece, Barrows. Thus, this book’s appeal lies not only in its flawless structure and content, its sense of relief, purpose and joy, but also in its origin and the people who brought it into being.

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