There are several favourable reviews of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society on Cannonball Read 4. To some extent I agree with them – this is an enjoyable enough read that sheds some light on an aspect of World War II often neglected in the historical novel. However, the reviews and the premise set me up for wanting more. For some reason, it reminded me of Julie&Julia and how much I wished that it had been just Julia – there are deeply interesting environments and conflicts and passions hovering around the edges of the book, but they are filtered through a fairly standard character trying to decide what to do with her own life. It’s as if the author didn’t want to fully commit to trying to see a community and a person from the inside, so they create a main character out of their own hesitations as a sort of escape route – to provide the easy laughs and easily relatable problems and distraction from the serious and the depressing. Here concentration camps and evacuated children sit uneasily beside the main character’s romantic dilemmas. I’m not saying that all books about wars need to be completely heavy going, unrelieved bleakness interspersed with horror, or that there is no place for love and romance and laughter amid suffering (after all, Anne Frank wrote about her crushes and daydreams as well as her ever-present fear) just that perhaps the writers who write the best fiction about horrible circumstances immerse themselves, letting the humour emerge naturally from within the situation and the characters, from human nature confronting the inhuman and the terrible and the absurd, from the life that goes on in the middle of the darkness. Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair (probably anything by Graham Greene, come to that) and Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day spring immediately to mind as examples of the sort of thing I mean. I say this, of course, never having written a novel, or lived through anything like Britain or the Channel Islands of the Second World War.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is centered around Juliet, who wrote a humorous column under the name Izzy Bickerstaff during the war, and now looks to sink her teeth into something a bit more serious. The Occupation of Guernsey becomes her pet project due to a coincidence (the first of many unlikely ones). It doesn’t take long before she goes there for a visit, encountering stories of hardship and cruelty that are heart-rending and some that are humorous, of islanders exhibiting various shades of bravery and cunning to outwit the Nazis. The almost universally beloved and heroic Elizabeth, who left behind a small daughter, and her fate, come to be the centre of the book Juliet decides to write, but unfortunately they are not the centre of Potato Peel Society – Juliet and her love life and the lessons she is learning take over the narrative, and while they are sweet and amusing enough, they left me thinking thinking that a novel focused solely on Elizabeth, during the Occupation, would have been absolutely fascinating.
24th May 1946
Yes, I’m here. Mark did his best to stop me, but I resisted him mulishly, right up to the bitter end. I’ve always considered doggedness one of my least appealing characteristics, but it was valuable last week.
It was only as the boat pulled away, and I saw him standing on the pier, tall and scowling – and somehow wanting to marry me – that I began to think perhaps he was right. Maybe I am a complete idiot.
I’m back indoors. It’s hours later – the setting sun has rimmed the clouds in blazing gold and the sea is moaning below the cliffs. Mark Reynolds? Who’s he?