Reading this stunning work of historical fiction, it’s easy to feel the sun warming the beaches of Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands between England and France — but much harder to grab your heart back when you’ve finished spending time with your new friends Poignancy, Heartache, Gratitude and Stunning Prose. Basically, after you’ve finished reading Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.
The novel opens in 1946, just a few short years since the end of World War II and the ravaging of Europe by Hitler’s Third Reich. Much of London is still decimated — dilapidated buildings still stand, but spill their contents onto the streets by the River Thames. Author Juliet Ashton survived the difficult time in England through her writing — and helped others deal with the terror, confusion, pain and harshness of war through her columns in a London newspaper. Often humorous, Juliet’s musings were so popular in England that, after the end of the war, they were published — and sold quite well. Now riding high from the success of her book, Juliet is struggling to find a new subject on which to focus her literary pursuits . . . and is coming up empty.
Told entirely through a series of letters from a great variety of individuals, Guernsey is first and foremost Juliet’s story — but quickly shifts to encompass the lives of so many other exceptional people, too. As Juliet travels England on her book tour and laments her lack of inspiration, a letter from far away drops right into her lap. A man on the island of Guernsey has stumbled across a copy of book once having belonged to Juliet — before the contents of her home were ripped apart in a bomb blast years before. Somehow the book made it to the Channel Islands, still with Juliet’s inscription in the front — and has become a staple at the meetings of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a slightly underground organization developed on the island during the five years in which German troops occupied Guernsey, making its inhabitants captives.
What always stuns me about fantastic historical fiction — particularly those stories which bring life to the people affected and haunted by World War II, one of the greatest blights and tragedies in human history — is its ability to completely transport me to another time, a distant place — and display to me, in a very human way, the toll of war upon those who fight and those who stay. None of the characters in Guernsey were soldiers, but they all knew — and loved — soldiers. None had to pick up and bear arms, but they did bear the daily burdens of not knowing whether their loved ones were safe.
It’s impossible for me — a modern American woman — to begin to understand what it must have felt like, both here and abroad, during World War II. At many times while reading, tears welled in my eyes as characters wrote to Juliet about the Occupation: what they sacrificed, how they survived, the uncertainty which enveloped their entire lives. Not having enough food, or coal, or warm clothing; not having a bed or a roof over their head. Watching prisoners marching through their once-beautiful streets, so thin as to almost disappear. But reading a novel like this reminds me how important it is that though I cannot truly understand, I can try to: and that this period of history, however horrible, can’t be forgotten.
I don’t want to make Guernsey sound morose . . . because it’s quite the opposite, really. It’s a testament to the human spirit. Like other fiction and non-fiction books I’ve read from the time, including The Diary of Anne Frank, Elizabeth Berg’s Dream When You’re Feeling Blue, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief and The Diary of Dawid Sierakowiak, it’s as much about the unexpected kindnesses as it is about the tragedies . . . it’s about the resilience of the human spirit. It’s about being alive.
If I don’t keep myself in check, I’ll wind up writing a 20,000 word review of this one . . . so I’ll hit upon a few more key points before I let you go:
• Juliet. I loved her — and am pretty sure I would love to be her. She’s intelligent, beautiful, sincere, independent, kind, loving, witty — and a writer. She’s an unstoppable force of nature. Reading her often-hilarious, always sincere letters to her friend and editor Sidney Stark, Sophie, Dawsey and Amelia basically made me . . . want to be a better person.
• The love story. I won’t elaborate — I would never dream of ruining it for you! But it was romantic, sweeping, realistic — gorgeous. My heart swelled to bursting.
• Perspective. Reading this novel forced me to take all my “problems,” throw them into a balloon, fill it with air and then watch as it floated away, completely disappearing from sight. Not only was I entirely caught up in this story while reading, but know now that Juliet and the residents of Guernsey — and the realities of life in a very different, difficult time — will stay with me for days. How blessed am I, in 2009, to live in a world of freedom — and to have a life free of relatively free of hardship, pain or want?
• The writing. Oustanding. The novel was begun by Mary Ann Shaffer, who sadly passed away before its completion; it was then taken up by her niece Annie Barrows, who did a superb completing it. All of the voices blend together seamlessly and, though many of them are similar, each individual letter-writer has a style and tone all their own. There’s no such thing as a “background” character; every person tells a story and has a purpose. No words are minced or wasted. Flawless.
And how fortunate am I to have read this novel? If you have any hesitation about starting it or doubt the sincerity of my crazy high recommendation, I’ll share another quick story: in order to finish the novel this morning, I woke up at 7 a.m. I woke up early — before my alarm clock. I couldn’t bear the thought of going to work without knowing how everything turned out! So I threw a blanket over my head to block out the harsh reading light, made a tiny slit for my eyes to pass through and frantically flipped the pages until I was done. And then I sighed. With pure contentedness.
So you have your orders, friends — get a move on, now. Don’t let me see you dawdling!
5 out of 5!