I picked up a copy of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (henceforth to be referred to as Guernsey) because I felt like it was haunting me. Every time I went in a bookshop it caught my eye, the ad for the new movie adaption (starring Lily James) seemed to forever be assaulting me whenever I turned on the telly, and several bookish friends recommended it to me. So I went into it excited, expecting great things. But the problem with expecting greatness is that it often sets you up to be disappointed by a mediocrity that would have otherwise been rather pleasing.
Guernsey is set in the immediate post-war period in both London, England, and the tiny channel island of Guernsey which was occupied by the Nazis for the majority of the war. The story centres around Juliet Ashcroft, a thirty-something writer riding the success of her satirical war-time newspaper columns. One day she receives a letter from a Guernsey man called Dawsey Adams who is obsessed with Charles Lamb thanks to a secondhand book – of which Juliet was the previous owner. He tells her about the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a book club invented by a woman called Elizabeth McKenna in a split-second panic to explain to a Nazi officer why a group of islanders were out walking home past curfew. The lie became reality and soon the book club developed into a family, with the fiery young Elizabeth at its core. This novel is told in an epistolary format, mostly featuring the correspondence that Juliet enters into with the Society members as research for an article in Part One, and then letters to her publisher whilst she is over in Guernsey researching a book in Part Two.
Through the letters, each islander reveals their own wartime experiences, through which a picture of the island’s immediate history is revealed. And this is where my issues with the book begin. Guernsey is obviously immensely well researched – I can fault neither of the two authors for that; it is clearly a labour of deep curiosity and adoration. Of course, research is a vital part of writing a novel, especially one of this nature, but there must be finesse and subtlety. I don’t want to read a fiction book that feels like a Wikipedia page. Whereas really good books are stories with veins of research glittering throughout, this feels like a great big lump of research notes with a haphazard story hacked out of it. I can’t help but wonder whether or not Shaffer would have been better off writing a history textbook instead of historical fiction.
This is a novel that truly lives and dies by its characters, the epistolary format being heavily character-driven. This is something that Shaffer does very well – each letter-writing character has a clear personality and you do fall a bit in love with your favourites (for me, that is Sidney and Isola), just as Juliet does. But there are so many characters, some with very similar names (such as Susan and Sophie) that it is easy to get confused or muddled up, and by the time you place the character you are reading all the feeling is gone. The other character problem is that Elizabeth, the founder of the Society, feels like the main character – yet she is entirely absent for the entirety of the novel, having been sent to a concentration camp for hiding a Todt worker during the occupation. It’s like Juliet is Nick Carraway, a passive lens through which the audience can experience the story, and Elizabeth is Gatsby; can you imagine enjoying The Great Gatsby without Gatsby? It’s like the novel is a sketch of all the negative space surrounding Elizabeth, which is a clever idea, but I don’t feel like it is pulled off well enough to be entirely satisfying.
The other thing that bugged me about Guernsey was that it is so unbearably twee. “To hell with docile” says Mark Reynolds, one of Juliet’s love interests, but the problem is that the whole damn thing is just too overwhelmingly docile. There are parts – to me, the highlights of the novel – when the brutality of the war is seethingly stark, but these stinging moments are too few and far between for me. I like a book that can make me bleed, or at the very least cry, and all this did, for the most part, was make me yawn.
Maybe I’m being a bit too harsh on poor old Guernsey. There were parts of it that I did genuinely enjoy. The second half where Juliet is in Guernsey itself is, for me, where the novel truly begins – the rest is all exposition and backstory that takes too long to unravel. Elizabeth’s infant daughter, Kit, is adorable, and you do find yourself rooting for the islanders. I am left wondering, however, if Guernsey wouldn’t have been better off being told in a more standard format (as opposed to through letters), and without Juliet, focusing instead solely on the islanders.
Another thing in its favour – Guernsey is an undeniably bookish book, a book that is a celebration of booklovers everywhere. “I would never make fun of anyone who loved reading” says Juliet early on, and from that moment on you know that you have a home in this novel. The entire thing is littered with literary references, most predominately to Charles Lamb, Anne Brontë, Jane Austen and Oscar Wilde, which are like glimmering seams of gold. The bookish nature of Guernsey and its inhabitants definitely endeared it to me and added to its overall (albeit saccharine and twee) pleasantness – I wouldn’t quite call it charm.
I went into this novel wanting to love it, which was perhaps the root of my problems. Too quickly I found myself so badly let down that I became determined to hate it, but about halfway through Part Two I found myself never wanting to leave this scarred yet perfect little green splodge of land nor the people thriving against all odds upon it. Guernsey is like a block of butter: it’s too hard to spread and enjoy at first, but once it starts to deliciously melt it is gone far too quickly. When this book is good, it is glorious. It meanders and you drift upon it – but too often it meanders too far, and I found myself frequently sinking.
Favourite quote: “It was amazing to me then, and still is, that so many people who wander into bookshops don’t really know what they’re after – they only want to look round in the hope of seeing a book that will take their fancy.”
Similar books: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak; The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald