Author: Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Publishing Year: 2008
Genre: Historical, Feel-Good
My rating: 4/5
Recommended for all those who love to read books.
The book is set around 1945, the ending of World War II and subsequently, the ending of German Occupation on the Islands of Guernsey. The major themes of the book are the magic of reading, friendship, finding love and using these to navigate tumultuous times. The book also commemorates virtues of courage, loyalty and being strong in the face of danger.
It centres around a literary society formed during the second world war. Three of the Guernsey citizens were caught after an illicit gathering (a Pig Roast feast) and to escape punishment, one of them contrived the Guernsey Literary Society on the spot as the reason for the gathering. With a strange hodgepodge of members, from people who loved to read to people who had never read a book in their life; this literary society soon became dear to one and all. As each member tells their story in turn, I found myself laughing out loud, feeling sympathy, adoration, respect and even sadness with them. Each member had something unique to add to the society– from a Charles Lamb fanatic, a Wuthering Heights admirer to a worshipper of William Owens’ Poetry, this book creates such endearing characters that made my heart swell. To find out where the “Potato Peel Pie” came from, read the book! It’s delightful, I promise.
This book is also informative about daily life in Guernsey during the German occupation. How people of this little island were affected when the Germans took over– like not allowed to grow anything except Potatoes, having to grow and hand over their cattle to the Germans, famished workers hunting and stealing food at night in desperation, no wireless communications were permitted making the little island literally an “island” cut off from the rest of the world, even import export of goods were banned making common commodities like soap and salt unprocurable.
The story is peppered with mentions of authors and little bits of stories about them which I enjoyed. For example, I learnt Wilkie Collins is a man! (I never once doubted in my mind that Wilkie Collins was a woman, hence the shock). He is a man and he kept two different houses for his two separate mistresses and two separate sets of children! I no longer feel the gravitational pull I earlier did to read his books. Finally, it also made me want to read more poetry and remember how truly important it is. Poetry is emotion, wisdom, contemplation packed into tiny sentences. You can remember tiny sentences, not paragraphs of prose. These tiny sentences of poetry help you chuckle in situations, they are your silent friends whispering their wisdom in your ears as you experience more of life. The impact of remembering lines of poetry includes being able to recall them to describe a circumstance and emotion and then makes you ready to contend with the circumstance.
The protagonist Juliet is a writer who lives in post-war London and is having a hard time trying to find herself and a book subject that she is passionate about. She begins a remarkable conversation with the members of the Guernsey Literary society and gets to know them and love them in a series of letters. She sails to Guernsey to meet them and becomes a part of the society very soon, she finds her place among them and falls in love. Here, on the island, she finally finds a subject for her book — writing about a woman who embodies the spirit and zest of the island. Guernsey changes the course of her life forever.
Written in the epistolary form, this book is a sweet mug of hot coffee on a cold winter day. It’s an uplifting read boasting an outstanding cast of characters, from pig farmers to phrenologists, literature lovers all. It’s refreshing. It’s endearing. It’s funny. It’s uplifting. While it has a lot of good qualities, it sometimes reads like a Children’s novel. The epistolary format breaks continuation and makes it hard to follow and remember the different characters in the beginning, as they keep switching. The story is not what I would call “a serious read” but definitely one that touches my heart, it takes some impossible turns, lightens the post-war atmosphere, has a cutesy ending and is generally a feel-good book.
Here’s a newspaper clipping mentioned in the book: