Sweet and sour…
😀 😀 😀 🙂
Not long after the end of WW2, London-based journalist Juliet Ashton is looking for a book idea to follow up on the success of her humorous war-time columns. Coincidentally, she is contacted by Dawsey Adams, a man from the Channel Island of Guernsey, who has found her name and address in a second-hand volume of Charles Lamb, and asks for her help in finding more of his work, since the only bookshop on Guernsey closed during the German occupation of the island. He mentions the importance that the titular Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society had in keeping up morale during the Occupation. Fascinated, Juliet asks for more details, and so starts a correspondence that gradually spreads to include more of the Guernsey residents. And after a time, Juliet realises that she wants her book to tell the story of the islanders and their Society…
The entire book is told in the form of letters, mostly between the Guernsey people and Juliet, but also including her existing friends and publishers. This technique works pretty well for the most part, though it does begin to feel a bit contrived, especially once Juliet decides to visit the island for herself. In the early part of the book, the tone is light, with a lot of humour, and Juliet’s letters give what feels like an authentic description of post-war London beginning to rebuild after the war – authentic, but with the tragedy carefully sanitised. The letters from Guernsey are equally light at first, as the islanders tell Juliet how the Society came about, and how they each found books that helped them in the dark days.
And the days for the islanders got very dark indeed under the German Occupation, as the food they farmed was taken by the occupiers, leaving them hungry to the point of near starvation, while other necessities became unobtainable with the islands being cut off from mainland Britain. The islanders tell about the sadness of the children being evacuated just before the Germans arrived, a separation that lasted till the war was over. And any infringement of the rules laid down by the Germans could lead to severe punishment, including being sent to the prison camps in Europe in the most serious cases.
The book is an odd combination of almost sickly sweetness combined with tales of terrible inhumanity and suffering. The characters are all too good to be true, dripping with 21st century political correctness, except for the baddies who are very bad. Not, as you may expect, the Germans, who when they’re not being cruel and vicious are all oddly nice, sensitive chaps – sending the islanders off to prison camps one minute and sharing their last potato with them the next. No, the real baddies are the ones who show what felt to me like more authentic 1940s attitudes – the ones who aren’t deeply sympathetic to women who had affairs with the German occupiers or had children out of wedlock, or who don’t think that homosexuality is a wonderful thing, etc. Whatever one might think of these attitudes, they ring truer to the time than the attitudes of tolerance and unselfish sweetness the authors give to the main characters. So that overall the Guernsey side of the story feels too fictional – inauthentic – even if the historical events are described accurately, as I assume they are. All the saccharin lessens the impact of the tougher stuff – an uneasy mix.
The characters are quirky, almost caricatures in some cases. The voices in the letters are all very similar, so that I constantly had to check the headings to see who was writing. There is a love story at the heart of the book which is quite enjoyable so long as your disbelief in the compatibility of the participants can be left to one side.
Overall, the humour and writing style make it entertaining enough to help the reader past the difficulties in character and credibility. I didn’t love it as much as the literally thousands of people who have given it glowing reviews, but I enjoyed it enough to recommend it as a light, heart-warming read for those grey days when grim realism may not be what you’re looking for.