About forty-five minutes in to this eight hour novel, I was on the verge of giving up. I liked the writing and the pace but I couldn’t engage with the apparently privileged middle-class characters sharing light-weight banter about publishing and book tours, immediately after the end of World War Two. They and the book seemed to lack substance and I was getting ready to move on. I promised myself that I’d stop after ninety minutes if things didn’t get better.
They did get better. Dramatically better. So much so that I feel I would have missed something quite special if I hadn’t persisted.
Looking back, I realise that the light-weight banter I was unsatisfied by was a forced cheerfulness shared by old friends trying to come to terms with the end of hard times and discovering that, once something bad has happened to you, it becomes part of you. You carry it with you like a scar or a shrapnel in your flesh. It is has changed you, is part of you but, with the help of light-weight banter and the love of good friends, need not define who you are going to become.
I started to engage with the book as soon as the letters from Guernsey started to arrive. These were people I wanted to know and who had stories that I wanted to hear.
As they were meant to, each letter pulled me further and further into the world of the Islanders and fed my hunger to know what the German occupation had been like for them: what they had done, what they had lost, whether and how they could build a future for themselves from the ruins of the war.
The audiobook format is a perfect match for the epistolary novel form, with different narrators bringing each correspondent alive. Every narrator did a splendid job in creating a sense of identity and growing intimacy as the novel unfolded.
Normally, I don’t do well with novel about the behaviour of the Germans in World War II. Too many books seem to glory in the details of the atrocities or push for the easy-to-claim-in-retrospect moral high ground. What I found compelling about this book was the very personal nature of the disclosures, grounded in individual experiences where one has to decide whether to do what is right or what is safe, where one becomes or is made, more or less human by each decision and where the highest form of bravery is not giving way to despair in the face of inhuman behaviour.
There are many passages in this book that moved me to tears; many stories that I know will stay with me, even though I would rather not have them in my head. So much for the book being too light-weight.
Yet this book in neither a dirge nor a lament. It is a book about the joy of life and love as much as it is about sorrow and loss. There is a love story, delicate, slight but wondrous all the same, at the centre of this book. There are also friendships and kindnesses that lift the spirit.
By the end of the book, I began to wish that I too could visit this version of Guernsey and become an honorary member of its literary society.
I’ve seen some reviews that criticise the novel for not being focused enough on books, implying that the title and the literary society are marketing gimmicks disguising an entirely different type of novel.
I understand this view but I don’t share it. The book does not focus on books. It focuses on readers, on why they read and why they need to talk to others about what they have read.
I came to understand how a single line from Shakespeare can “who says most when he says the least” can help a man crystallise his reaction to calamity and face it with greater calm, how the letters of a man dead for centuries can guide a lost and damaged reader back into society and how a tale written for a grieving child can bring hope and happiness years later.
In my view, “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” holds up reading and discussing with others what one has read, as an activity that can sustain humanity in the face of brutality, not by providing an escape route but by refreshing the roots of our humanity: a shared human condition, a shared and constantly evolving imagination and the ability to surface truth and emotion and give them their due.
I recommend this wonderful book to anyone who loves life and books and the readers who connect the two.