Monday, 1 March 2010

Book of the Month: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Burrows)

Juliet Ashton, the heroine of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, the only novel of Mary Ann Shaffer, has a writer’s block. She is the writer of a biography of Anne Bronte and, during the Second World War, has written a light-hearted semi-weekly column in the Spectator under the nom de plume Izzy Bickerstaff. Her friend, Sidney Stark, one half of the publishing company Stephens & Stark Ltd, has published a compilation of these articles in a book entitled Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War. Juliet is busy touring every nook and corner of the British Isles—even Kings Lynn, in Norfolk, which, we are expected to believe, has a bookshop—promoting her book, worrying all the time where the idea for her next book is going to come from.

Then Juliet receives a letter from someone called Dawsey Adams, who lives on the Channel Islands. Why has he written to Juliet? Because he is in possession of a book by Charles Lamb (‘Selected Essays of Elia’) which once belonged to Juliet. Dawsey Adams approves of the essays and has shrewdly concluded that since the book has ‘selected’ in its title, Lamb must have written ‘other things’. He has written to Juliet in the hope that she would provide him with the name and address of a bookshop in London from which he can order more of Lamb’s writings. If this strikes you as a bit weird, please remember that the man Adams has lived all his life in Guernsey and, even without the preceding five years of the German occupation when the island was cut off from England, is unlikely to have had much in the way of contact with the rest of the world that would have broadened his horizons. We shall give him the benefit, as against the detriment, of doubt, and conclude that if you were a hick you probably would not know either how to go about ordering a book, and would write to the previous owner of the book. You would also let it know, even if it is in no way connected to your request, that you are a member of something called The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society which came into being because of a roast pig you had to keep secret from the German soldiers. Juliet Ashton, if she were a normal person like you and me, would treat this letter with the suspicion it deserves and put it straight in the bin. But Juliet is, by nature, nosy and gossipy, and, even though she probably does not care much—or, at any rate, not enough to not peddle it to a second hand book-seller when she moved houses—about the essays of Charles Lamb, she replies, driven by her curiosity as to the origin of the name of the society to which the man Adams claims to belong and what has it got to do with a roast pig, writing an even longer letter and, in keeping with her histrionic nature which asserts itself more and more as the novel progresses, gives Adams the kind of personal information which, in America you don’t pass on to your husband until the prenuptials are signed, and only through your lawyers. If Dawsey Adams needed any encouragement—and he doesn’t—this long, impressionistic epistle from Juliet, overflowing with gushing enthusiasm and superficial charm, provides it. Through Adams Juliet comes to know other members of the improbably named society—the origins of its name turn out to be rather banal; I am sure I am not giving away the game by revealing that the inclusion of ‘potato peel pie’ in the literary society’s (and novel’s) title has no more significance than that a member of the society cooked it for the initial meetings of the society during the German occupation and scarcity of food; it could have been a cottage pie and made no difference —who have names like Isola, Eben, and Clovis. Like Dawsey Adams, these people need little to no encouragement and write long letters to Juliet, filling her in on how they came to be associated with the reading group—they were occupied by the Germans and there was nothing else to do; the lot of them, judging from the information they provide, were more interested in the pie than discussing books in any case—and also provide her with a lot of unnecessary personal information. All of this, no doubt, is meant to exhibit the simple, unpretentious ways of the simple folk; but they come across as people utterly lacking in subtext, the woman Isola, in particular, being monumentally irritating. However, Juliet thinks these guys are her soul-mates, and turns up on the island, ostensibly to research a book on the German occupation of the Channel Islands. Over the next couple of months Juliet visits Dawsey and other members of the Literary society; they visit her; she has lunches and dinners at their places; they have lunches and dinners at her place (a cottage belonging to a woman called Elizabeth McKenna, who is credited to have come up with the idea of the literary society on the spur of the moment; who gave birth to a daughter after sleeping with a German doctor—hold on! Don’t cluck your tongues in disapproval; this was a good German, who read Rilke’s poetry, secretly helped the islanders, and charmed old women by presenting them with bunches of freesias—; and who was packed off to a concentration camp on the continent for hiding a slave labourer, where the Germans finally lost their patience with the perpetually insubordinate hussy who had made something of a habit of beating up her German overseers, and shot her); she goes for long walks along the cliffs in their company; they take her for long walks in the woods; and she writes long letters to her publisher friend in London about how idyllic it all is. During her stay, Juliet also becomes attached to the orphaned daughter of Elizabeth McKenna whom she wants to adopt—the German father having been conveniently bumped off by the allied bombers—which makes you unsure as to question the woman’s judgement—the girl is an insolent brat who deserves a good thumping a minimum of three times a day—or to admire her mistakenly placed sense of surrogate motherhood. Any doubts in your mind are removed when she declares, in one of her interminable letters to her friend, that she is falling for Dawsey Adams, the man who has the charisma of a wooden board and eloquence of a dishwasher. The woman clearly has unsound judgment, if not mind.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is the literary equivalent of a feel good Hollywood flick, or, if you prefer a different metaphor, a literary equivalent of a sticky toffee pudding. The problem is (continuing with the second metaphor) if your meal consists only of a sticky toffee pudding, it becomes a bit too much in the end, leaving you craving for the sting of chicken tikka masala.

A sense of cloying sentimentality pervades the novel. All the characters are goody two shoes, who are falling over themselves to be of assistance and look out for others; and have about as much depth as soggy cardboard. You almost find yourself rooting for Adelaide Addison—the Bible-thumper who disapproves of the literary society in general and of Elizabeth McKenna in particular (for having a baby out of wedlock)—and the American publishing tycoon, Mark Reynolds—who wants to marry Juliet, and believes, not entirly without justification, you have to admit, that he is a greater catch than Dawsey Adams—stereotypical and two-dimensional as they are; however, both give up too easily—the limit of Adelaide Thompson’s villainy is to write a couple of scurrilous letters to Juliet, and Mark Reynolds travels all the way to Guernsey only to leave with tail between his legs when Juliet tells him that her heart belongs to the mute quarryman; it is as if the villains just cannot bring themselves to be nefarious enough.

Beryl Bainbridge once remarked that anybody can write, or every person is capable of writing at least one book, or something like that. Mary Ann Shaffer, according to one of her obituaries, had the ambition of writing at least one book that would get published. She began writing the novel in 2000 at the behest of her book-club members, twenty years after she first visited Guernsey. The novel was in the writing stage for several years, and by the time it finally saw the light of the day and became a huge success, Mary Ann Shaffer was dead. However, she died happy in the knowledge that the novel was very well received by the publishers all over the world and would be published in thirteen countries. It is obviously a labour of love. It is also a very well written and researched book, which is an easy enough read. It lacks depth, but is sure to warm up your heart on a rainy day. It is no mean achievement.