Until I read this novel, my knowledge of the Channel Islands was limited to the breeds of dairy cattle which take their name from the Bailiwicks of Jersey and of Guernsey, the fact that the Islands are a tax haven and have a flower growing industry and my memories of the 1980s television series Bergerac. Thanks to the book, I now know more. In particular, I know that the Channel Islands were occupied by Germany during World War II. Given the geographical location of the Channel Islands, this doesn’t come as a surprise, but it’s something I hadn’t thought about before. *
Set in 1946, the novel is in epistolary form and tells the story of an English writer who enters into correspondence with residents of Guernsey who make up the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. This is an organisation which came about because some quick thinking was required to protect its members during the German occupation. The letters tell the story of the horrific impact of the occupation on Guernsey residents and the struggle to return to normal life after the end of the war.
This is a book with plenty of quirkiness and charm. Indeed, it’s a bit like a literary equivalent of Doc Martin: plenty of warm-hearted, kooky characters living their lives in a seriously picturesque setting. Not that there’s anything wronge with that. I love charm and quirkiness. In addition, the account of life under German occupation is extremely moving and the tale of loyalty, courage and resilience in the worst possible situations is inspirational. Mary Ann Shaffer (who sadly died before the novel was published) was clearly a wonderful storyteller.
However, as much as I was captivated by the charm of the narrative, this is not a perfect novel. The epistolary form is not easy to carry off and I felt that the voices of the different characters were not sufficiently distinct from each other. In addition, the voices of the characters at times did not appear to belong to 1946. Another problem for me was that the novel is a bit too easy and light to carry the weight of the very serious sub-plots: in particular the death of Elizabeth McKenna in a German labour camp and the fate of her young friend Rémy. The author’s note written by Shaffer’s niece Annie Barrows (who wrote sections of the novel when Shaffer became too ill to continue with the writing) indicates that some substantial re-writing was required. I wonder whether this re-writing might have included the insertion of a romance, which felt a bit … I don’t know, rushed, maybe. In addition, the use of a character who is a labour camp survivor as a device to progress the romance sub-plot struck me as unnecessary.
There were also smaller issues with the novel which took me out of the narrative. For example, there is reference to a plan adopt an orphaned child. It was suggested that approval for adoption or guardianship of the child would be a decision for a local lawyer to make. This struck me as implausible. A quick Internet search revealed that prior to 1960, children in Guernsey could be fostered or cared for but not formally adopted. As I write this I know how pedantic I sound, but I feel it is something I would not even have noticed if I had not felt myself to be less than 100% engaged with the narrative.
My overall response is positive. In spite of the novel's flaws, the story is interesting, the characters are full of charm and the themes are uplifting. Plus, the novel has made me want to visit the Channel Islands, which is no bad thing. Indeed, I’m sure that this novel has been excellent for Guernsey tourism. In terms of a rating, this teeters between 3 and 4 stars. As always, I enjoyed sharing the reading experienced with my friend Jemidar.
*Since finishing the novel, I’ve also learned from my well-informed friend Jemidar, that the British monarch bears the title of Duke of Normandy because the Bailiwick of Jersey and the Bailiwick of Guernsey are British Crown Dependencies. I’ve also been reminded that Gerald Durrell’s zoo is in Jersey. There is clearly plenty to know about the Channel Islands.