The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

“Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers. How delightful if that were true.”

Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society has been on my radar for a while, but it wasn’t until quite recently that I inadvertently sort-of stole it from the Circumlocutor (sorry). Apparently I am very competitive when it comes to books.

And on the whole I’d say that Guernsey is very much worth the competition. Told in letters, it’s the story of a growing friendship between writer Juliet Ashton and the titular Literary Society, formed under dubious circumstances during the German Occupation of Guernsey; the whole takes place in a subdued post-war version of England. I practically inhaled it in one afternoon after handing in my dissertation, which is, I think, the perfect way to read it, guiltily, in one sitting, with a cup of tea and a purring cat. And possibly a roaring fire, if you can stretch to that.

See, it’s a very gentle book, this one. In fact, it reminds me rather of Call the Midwife, in its relentless good-naturedness, its determination that Everything Will Be All Right in the face of practically all historical evidence. There is horror here; given the setting, the novel can hardly avoid it. But the horror is cuddled, stroked, swathed in love and friendship and general good-heartedness by the efforts of a caring and softhearted community of friends until it gives up and goes away. The book places great faith in the potential of community to heal a heavily wounded society; rather than the paean to reading everyone seems to think it is (really, there are hardly any bookish passages here at all), I’d say that it’s a kind of wistful construction of a society everyone wants to live in but that nobody really does, or possibly ever did. The fact that it is fundamentally a fantasy does not make it any less delightful to sink into on a rainy afternoon: Juliet’s voice is witty and kind, and her relationships with Sidney and Susan and, later, with the islanders feel convincingly heartfelt.

Reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is in many ways like spending an afternoon with a group of very good, very kind friends. It’s an excellent antidote to stress, and if it’s nothing more than that, well, that’s rare enough in a book to make this one a treasure.

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