Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows, is a rare bird: an epistolary novel, a form that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. (In this case it does.) It is also a love letter to the island of Guernsey as it existed just after World War II, which is when the book takes place.

Juliet Ashton is a writer, a Londoner who made it big during the war with a series of comical newspaper columns under the name of “Izzy Bickerstaff”. Now that the war is over, her columns have been collected into a book, Izzy Bickerstaff Goes To War, and she’s looking for a new project. About this time she gets a letter from a man from Guernsey; he’s acquired a book of Charles Lamb’s essays that once belonged to Juliet, and wants to know whether Lamb wrote anything else and if so whether she could help him to get a hold of it; there are no bookshops on Guernsey after the war. In passing he mentions the intriguingly named “Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society”, and Juliet can’t resist trying to find out more.

Guernsey is one of the Channel Islands, just off the coast of France but subject to the British crown. It is the home of the famous Guernsey cows, which are brown and lack the exciting design values of Holsteins. And it was occupied by the Germans early in World War II and kept almost entirely isolated until the end of the war. During much of that time even the occupying Germans were on the verge of starvation.

A succession of letters ensues, between Juliet and a whole host of other people, and Juliet finds herself being drawn more and more into the life of post-war Guernsey. The result is delightful, and kept me laughing and reading; and if it all seemed a little contrived after the final page was turned I certainly had no complaints before that time.

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