Monday, September 01, 2008
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
I know that "all the world and his wife and his daughter" have written rave reviews about this gem of a book but I have only just read it and I would like to say a few words about it, too.This won't be another review, just some observations I made as I was reading and enjoying the best new book to arrive through my letterbox this year.
Like everyone else, I loved The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I had to slow down when I got to the last fifty pages because I didn't want it to end. Then I wanted to know more about Mary Ann Shaffer and was saddened to know that she died before seeing her book published and receiving such international acclaim.
We had a holiday on the island of Guernsey a few years ago and we were fascinated by the evidence of the German Occupation. However, although we learned a lot from the museums and books such as Charles Cruikshank's official history of the German Occupation, the reality of life for the islanders was difficult to conjure from facts alone. Dawsey, Amelia, Elizabeth, Isola and the rest may be fictional characters but their descriptions of daily life, the hardships and privations, the inventiveness, cameraderie and courage of quite ordinary people gave me a better understanding of the conditions in Guersey during the war years.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is well researched and well written but I wondered, as I was reading, if it had the authentic tone of the period. I am not the first person to have noted echoes of Helene Hanff's 84 Charing Cross Road in its style and form, so I turned to my beautiful Folio edition (HH would not have approved of a paperback) to re-read the letters from 1949.
Juliet's letters in the Potato Peel book are written in exactly the same tone as those of the very proper English correspondents from the bookshop in Charing Cross Road.The style becomes less formal and then familiar in both books. Mary Ann Shaffer got it exactly right.
I wondered next about the choice of literature for the members of the Guernsey Literary Society. Turning again to Helen Hanff, I found many similarities: classics, poetry and essays appear but no fiction until both Isola and Helen chance upon Pride and Prejudice. You may recall Helen Hanff's outrage on discovering, when she read a modern English translation of Chaucer's tales, that they were 'just stories. I don't like stories'. I wonder if Isola was based on her, certainly it would be difficult to decide which of them uttered the gem, "Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad books".
I was a mere toddler (pictured here with big sister Catherine and our mother)when these books were being sent across to America by the proprieters of the boookshop in Charing Cross Road, or being discussed by the members of that Literary Society but I was surrounded by similar titles. I recall Selected Essays of Elia, Tales from Shakespeare, Carlyle's Past and Present and lots of poetry books, so perhaps they were part of every English home at the time.
Reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society has been most enjoyable, not simply because it is a good book but also because of all the distractions that followed on. I might not otherwise have had the pleasure of re-reading 84 Charing Cross Road, recalling my early childhood or that holiday in Guernsey.