Monday, September 1, 2008

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

By Mary Ann Shaffer
Random House, INC
Reviewed by Elaine Simpson-Long

I received a parcel of books from Bloomsbury the other week and this was on the top of the pile and caught my attention immediately as the title was slightly odd, to say the least, and I wondered what on earth it could be about.

"It is January 1946 and writer Juliet Ashton sits at her desk, vainly seeking a subject for her next book. Out of the blue she receives a letter from one Dawsey Adams of Guernsey, a farmer with a shy manner and tender heart, who has by chance acquired a secondhand book that once belonged to Juliet.......they begin a correspondence and when Dawsey reveals that he is a member of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, Juliet's curiosity is piqued and it is not long before the begins to hear from the other members"

There is gawky Isola, who makes love potions and lives alone with her claustrophobic parrot Zenobia, Eben a fisherman who loves Shakespeare; Will, creator of the famous Potato Peel Pie and Dawsey, kind reliable and loving, and a host of other characters. I hasten to say that though you may be thinking that this is all a tad whimsical, it is not. Underlying the wit and humour is the story of how the islanders coped during the German occupation of their island, of the horrors that they saw, the hunger and starvation, but also the bravery and friendship.

A central character who we only read and hear about through the eyes of others, is Elizabeth, the founder of the literary group (they discuss Elizabeth von Arnim so she is a woman after my own heart) who was sent away to a concentration camp leaving her child behind her, a child with a German father, who is cared for by all the members of the Literary society. We learn all about her steadfast courage, her love for the father of their daughter, her feistiness and care for her friends and the fate which awaits her in Germany. Elizabeth's story provides a sombre balance to Mary Ann Shaffer's book and makes it clear that this is not just a light, frothy and witty read.
The book is entirely epistolary, and the letters fly thick and fast backwards and forwards and with each letter we read we learn something about the writer; the characters live through their own writing. I do like books like this, no narrative telling us what to think about each of the protagonists, we are left to make up our own minds through the letters and to picture locations and settings in our own imagination.

This book reminded me in style and wit of Diary of a Provincial Lady. Very difficult to describe the humour of E M Delafield's book, it is understated and does not bounce out at you, it is in the reading, no laughing out loud (well, perhaps occasionally) but just a general feeling of deep amusement and affection. I felt just the same about this wonderful book by Mary Anne Shaffer , who I understand died a few months ago, though she knew her book was to be published, she never even saw the proof copy that was in my hands. I was so sad when I heard this, no more from this writer, just a one off and yet I feel that this simply delightful book is due to be a classic and will be read for years to come. This is what Stephanie at Bloomsbury sent to me when I said how sad I was to hear of the author's death:

"I know - it's such a shame and especially that she didn't get to see all the amazing comments that were written about her book once the proofs started going out. We've yet to receive a bad review of this title - it seems to hit a chord with all readers".

I am most grateful to Bloomsbury for sending me this gem as I am not sure I would have spotted it otherwise. Mark you, if I had picked it up in a bookshop and read the opening I think I would have paid for it and taken it away. Totally beguiled me:

"Susan Scott is a wonder. We sold over forty copies of the book, which was very pleasant, but much more thrilling from my standpoint was the food. Susan managed to get hold of ration coupons for icing sugar and real eggs for the meringue. If all her literary luncheons are going to achieve these heights, I won't mind touring the country. Do you suppose that a lavish bonus would spur her onto butter? Let's try it - you may deduct the money from my royalties"

and later, on remembering the days that she and her friend Sophie were book shop assistants:

"It was amazing to me than, and still is, that so many people who wander into bookshops don't really know what they're after, they only want to look around in the hope of seeing a book that will take their fancy.......they will ask the assistant three questions (1) What is it about? (2) Have you read it? (3) Was it any good?

Real dyed in the wool assistants, like Sophie and me, can't lie. Our faces always give us away. A raised brow or a curled lip means that it's a poor excuse for a book, and the clever customers ask for a recommendation instead, whereupon we frog march them over to a particular volume and command them to read it. If they read it and despise it, they'll never come back. But if they like it, they're customers for life"

OK better stop quoting huge chunks otherwise there will be no need for you to buy this book and I SO want you to do so. It is published in August and plenty of time to pre-order. I shall burble on about this again then in order to remind everyone that it is now available.

I loved this book.

And no need to tell me that this is hardly a critical or analytical summing up, I know and I don't care.

I loved loved loved this book.

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