14 July 2009

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer

An off-beat book club set in World War II
Next week, we will finish this book, on our fifth session with it. I’m reading it aloud to my friend
Gladys who can no longer read herself, and I’m enjoying the sound of her shaking with laughter just as much as I’m enjoying the story and the way it’s told. There have also been a few passages that brought a lump to my throat – in particular what happened to the children and how the adults dealt with it – and I’ve had to pause for a few seconds, quickly think of something deathly boring to stabilise my feelings and then start reading again, pretending everything’s okay. Of all the books we’ve read together since a year ago when we started spending Tuesday mornings together doing this, this one has been the one we’ve both enjoyed most. We’ve read it fastest, too – otherwise we’re always stopping to chat and rant about how the world could so easily be a better place if only we were running things – and we’ll both be sorry when it’s over. Gladys is already looking for another title and with her vast knowledge of books and her widespread book-lovers’ network, I’m confident she’ll pick another good one – the ones we’ve read together have invariably been better than the ones the publishers send me for review or the ones prominently displayed by the bookstore chains which I find hard to resist buying.
This book tells a little-known story of World War II, something we’ve long forgotten. Even if we ever had a concept of trenches, “Tommies”, food rationing, bombed-out churches in Europe, the concentration camps with all their dreadful brutality, the carnage at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the sheer manic delight of the Normandy landings – we certainly never knew what happened to Guernsey, one of the British Isles, which was occupied by the Germans and completely isolated from the rest of the world for five years. This grim story is told with so much humour that it is full of fun. Presenting it entirely through letters written by its various characters, the author has cleverly worked all kinds of details about the war into the book, including the slave Todt workers, the prostitutes imported to areas of command, and all kinds of fascinating specific details about war life and recovery.
The saddest thing I learnt about this book was that its author, Mary Ann Shaffer whose entire career had been spent in libraries, bookstores and publishing – in fact quite similar to Gladys’ own career – had written the book late in life and died before it appeared in print and became the
well-deserved success that it did.

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