A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Despite the title, I picked it up. There must be few bookworms who haven’t heard about this slender novel, I certainly had. It took the book world by storm when it was first published last year after the death of its author, Mary Ann Shaffer. She died knowing that her novel had been sold successfully across the world and any final edits were in the capable hands of her niece Annie Barrows. This is a book that even the hardest critic seemed to take to their heart. It certainly hadn’t escaped my attention. And there it was, in crisp paperback with a glowing “3 for 2!” sticker. I was powerless to resist – despite a title that made my nose twitch.
So here begins a great love story because make no mistake this book swept me off my feet and stole my heart.
Written in epistolary form, this book is based on a coincidence. Dawsey Adams happens across a book once owned by Juliet Ashton and so begins her correspondence and friendship with the eponymous Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. It opens in 1946 with Juliet promoting Izzy Biggerstaff Goes To War, a collection of her witty war-time columns.
Despite the fact that this book is written entirely in letters, Juliet is quickly drawn as she writes to her publisher Sidney Stark and her best friend, Sidney’s sister Sophie. Juliet is the sort of woman you will either love or hate (and your reaction to her will more than likely affect your reaction to the whole book). She’s warm and sparky, but lacks confidence and often feels awkward. She’s a scatty but tough heroine. She is delighted to receive a letter from Dawsey, even more delighted to think that one of the books she had to sell has found such a loving new owner. He writes because Guernsey has only just been freed from German occupation and he needs assistance in finding more books by his favourite author Charles Lamb. And so begins Juliet’s involvement with the Society – the stately Amelia Maugery, witchy Isola Pribby and Kit, the mysterious Elizabeth McKenna’s daughter.
Of course, not everyone will love this book as much as I and many others have. In fact I would go so far as calling it a “Marmite Book.” There will be those who will accuse it of being twee and stereotypical and I will accept that because yes, you’d have a point there. But there is something so joyous and warm and life-affirming about the stories told in these letters that I found it impossible to resist. In the aftermath of so much destruction and human suffering, it is heartening to see these people not only pull together to support one another, but open their arms and hearts willingly to an outsider. Something they do for both Juliet and Sidney.
This is a love story (and I don’t only refer to my ravishing here). It’s about loving life, loving books, art, poetry, loving your neighbour, your enemy and finding the best in people wherever you can. There are some awful scenes in this novel – revelations about the time people spent in prison camps and the punishments they suffered under occupation, but the overwhelming theme is that of the power of the human spirit. My only complaint about this book is that by the end it is taken over by the love-story and the discovery (I shall say no more) that the occupation is forgotten. Which is a shame because some of the best moments in the book refer to the occupation.
It is a book that almost drove this dyed-in-the-wool, written-through-me-like-a-stick-of-rock Londoner onto the next available mail boat to Guernsey.
And that ridiculous title? Oh that’s all part of its charm.
Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, London, 2009. ISBN-10: 0747596689. 256pp.