9/23/09

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society — Review by Chris


I like a good story. I also like fascinating characters who reveal the story in interesting ways. I got both in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a surprisingly powerful yet compact novel that captured me by the third letter.

Juliet is best known for her wartime columns in London newspapers. As "Izzy," the writer found something light in the dark and shared her own poignant, humorous ponderings. But now the war is over and Juliet wants to leave Izzy in the past. It's time for the Next Thing — only she's not sure what that is. She owes her publisher a new book, but she's stymied on what to write. Nothing feels right, nothing sounds true.

Then she receives a letter from a stranger who has come to own a book that used to belong to her. Could she recommend a reputable bookseller to help him discover Charles Lamb? Thus begins a special correspondence that changes her life.

The letter comes from a resident of Guernsey, an island in the English Channel that, like the other channel islands, were occupied by the Germans. The occupation began in 1940, and the islanders were literally cut off from the rest of the world until the end of the war: no correspondence, no radio, no newspapers, no contact at all. Their food, homes, their every possession became the property of their prison guards. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was borne of this oppression — and the existence of a single pig.

The slim volume unfolds the story in the form of correspondence: letters, cables — and, in one instance, something meant never to be seen by another person, ever. Juliet is the main character, and much of the correspondence is written by or received by her. However, the same situation is, from time to time, witnessed by and described by different people — like the time Juliet throws a teapot at another journalist's head. (He deserved it.)

I love Juliet. Wait, let me reiterate: I. Love. Juliet. She is lively, loving, clever, self-deprecating and wholly unaware of how utterly special she is. In other words, she is human. She writes some of the best, loveliest and wittiest lines of the novel. It is the margin notes in a pamphlet Juliet once owned that draw the original letter-writer to her.

I also loved how the story unfolded, letter by letter. Each letter-writer has a distinct voice that remains true. Each character is essential to the story, which unfolds to me a rich, new aspect of World War II. I was unaware of the occupation of the Channel Islands, or the existence of the Organisation Todt. I knew some urban dwellers sent their children to live in the English countryside with strangers (thanks to C.S. Lewis, I confess), but I didn't know that Channel Islanders also sent their children to the English countryside, then lost contact with them for five long years. I didn't know the first thing of being trapped on an island, subject to the whim of the Third Reich, when Churchill and the Crown considered the islands a necessary sacrifice for the whole of England. Despite all of this learning, never once does this feel like A History Lesson. It is the story of people, and the people are fascinating, even (and especially) the ones readers may not like.

I wholeheartedly recommend this modest tome and hope you enjoy the characters and their story as much as I did.

2 comments:

wookyluvr said...

I loved it, too! This was a recent book club pick. Hey Chris, would you like to join our book club?! Carole can tell you about it. :)

Chris said...

That sounds like fun! I'll get the skinny from Carole.... Thanks!

Let me know about the quiz I just posted for Banned Books Week..... I think it's hard, and I wrote it! :-)