I’d heard so many good things about The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society. My mum read it the week before I did and rushed over to tell me all the best anecdotes from the first 50 pages or so.
Now that I’ve finished it, I have an overwhelming desire to tell you all the best anecdotes from all 256 pages.
Of course, that would be a gross violation of copyright, so I won’t. I’ll settle for telling you how incredibly wonderful it is and telling you that you ABSOLUTELY MUST READ IT.
On 12 January 1946, Dawsey Adams – a Guernsey pig-farmer – sends a letter to Juliet Ashton – a young writer living in London. He found her address in a second-hand copy of The Selected Essays of Elia which found its way to him on Guernsey during the war.
Dawsey wonders if perhaps Juliet could send him the name address of a bookshop in London where he could order another book that might contain the rest of the essays of Elia, by one Charles Lamb?
This was before the time of the internet, or even the White Pages, and there was no bookshop left on Guernsey (it closed after people started to buy books to burn for heat). For 5 years during World War 2, Guernsey was a German-occupied territory, cut off from the rest of the world.
In his letter, Dawsey drops a brief reference to the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which came into being ‘because of a roast pig we had to keep secret from the German soldiers’.
What follows is an incredible story, told entirely by letters between over a dozen characters, including Juliet, her publisher, her beau, her sister; and Dawsey and the other islanders. Bit by bit, they reveal the full story of what happened on Guernsey during the war. And how a literary society saved the lives and sanity of many islanders. Also – what on earth did a roast pig have to do with it? And what is potato peel pie, anyway?
You know that feeling you (used to) get when you opened up the letterbox and there was a letter from a friend from far away, telling you interesting and exciting stories about what was happening in their day-to-day? Turning every single page of this book feels exactly like that.
I can’t begin to tell you what a refreshing delight of a character Juliet is. She’s lived through the Blitz, experiencing and witnessing true horrors. And yet, she is positively frothing with excitement for life and a driving curiosity about the stories of others.
I’m very much looking forward to seeing the movie as well. If you have seen the movie, I’d highly recommend reading the book too – I imagine the story will be the same, but a film can’t possibly replicate the genius that is the interwoven letters of the book as they gradually reveal the full story.
My biggest regret is that the book ended!
I’ll leave you with a passage from the book that my mum told me about, and I found fascinating as well. I think it illustrates perfectly how different wartime experiences were, and why it’s so important that we keep sharing individual stories. There’s no such thing as a single source of ‘truth’ because there are many truths.
Letter from Dawsey to Juliet, after Dawsey has gained some access to war-time London newspapers:
I enjoy the wartime cartoons, but there is one that bewilders me. It was in a 1944 Punch and shows about ten people walking down a London street. The chief figures are two men in bowler hats, holding briefcases and umbrellas, and one man is saying to the other, ‘It is ridiculous to say these Doodlebugs have affected people in any way.’ It took me several seconds to realise that every person in the cartoon had one normal ear and one very large ear on the other side of his head. Perhaps you could explain it to me.
A Doodlebug was, in fact, a deadly bomb which made a sound like a car running out of petrol. If you could hear the noise, you knew were okay. If, however, the noise stopped, it meant that the bomb was directly above you and you had just seconds to find cover or you’d be blown apart.
Why were they called Doodlebugs? Because that’s what the British nicknamed them. It was a way of keeping morale up and avoiding mass stress breakdowns – after all, who could possibly be too afraid of something with such a ridiculous name?
Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher for the purpose of review.