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Monday, October 18, 2010

The Guernsey Spud Book

I cannot claim credit for the title of this post, which I first heard from the lips of dovegreyreader at the recent Everyone’s a Critic event in London, but you all know what I am talking about. It is the book that is everywhere; the international best seller; the enticingly titled: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. This is the story of how a sophisticated London journalist – the disarming Juliet Ashton - fell in love with and became irreparably entangled with the natives of Guernsey in the period immediately after the Second World War.

It is told entirely through the medium of letters to and from Juliet proves to be a simple and effective way of telling a tale. The characters bubble through the text of their correspondence wonderfully and there is a lot of humour, a lot of lovely touches. That is not to say that it is all froth. The book deals with ideas of occupation and empire, with obedience and rebellion. The Channel Islands were effectively not defended and were occupied by Germany for almost the whole war. They were tiny little rocks in the ocean which most Britons did not give much of a thought to and yet they were uncomfortable little symbols of defeat; stages for brutality and theatres for quiet subversion.

By a strange coincidence a book previously belonging to Juliet rocks up on Guernsey and an enthusiastic native into whose hands it falls writes to her, using the recently restored postal service to the mainland. At first she is attracted to the quirkiness of what his letters contain and before too long she realises that there is a profound comment on occupation underpinning them. Behind this still there are the universal human concerns of love and friendship and loyalty. Unable to resist, soon there are letters flying about across the channel between all sorts of people and a hidden story of the conflict emerges; a story of defiance and forbidden associations. What on earth was the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and what crimes against convention did it conceal?

My two favourite things about this book are firstly that it is about the power of books themselves and secondly that it celebrates what in my view is the original human virtue: disobedience. Hurrah for that!

The characters of the island and those who touch Juliet’s life in London are, as has been widely commented upon, most charming. Sometimes I found them a little too charming – and their quirkiness strayed into twee-ness. They looked a little bit too much like rural folk as seen by urban sophisticates. In the same way, I found that the story was rather saccharine and almost laughably predictable. The wonderful thing about the book is that it is a fabulous idea, not that it is a fabulous novel. It is about a neglected cranny of history and it is a neatly written, good book. Personally, I would rather plump for an authentic voice from the same period such as Mollie Panter Downes. But then, Mollie Panter Downes never, as far as I know, made it to Guernsey. Maybe this is sort of what she would have made of it had she done so.

Other opinions can be found at Harriet Devine’s Blog, Vulpes Libris, Bianca’s Book Blog and the lovely Stuck in a Book.

14 comments:

  1. I also loved what this book had to say on the effects reading has on the lives of readers-to me it is simply a throughly enjoyable book-

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  2. I have not yet read this book, though I do have it on my shelves. I am sorry to hear that it wasn't exactly a perfect read for you. I might have to move it down on the stack.

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  3. It was a fabulous idea, but I didn't think that the author really brought it off. The tweeness and the stereotyped characters rather spoilt it for me. Mollie Panter Downes for me, any day!

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  4. I really loved this book! Not just because it was about how wonderful books are, but because it was about a woman who unexpectedly found her place in the world. I'm a sucker for stories like that.

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  5. I'd never even heard of Guernsey before reading this and now I'm dying to visit it.

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  6. I ADORED this book and ended up buying it for several friends. I also reviewed it back in January!

    http://musingsofapennilesswriter.blogspot.com/2010/01/book-of-letters.html

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  7. I think I'd like this book very much. My reading knowledge for this period is also rather little so I think I'd like to read it.

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  8. I really enjoyed reading this book and posted about it here http://bloomsburybell.blogspot.com/2009/08/review-guernsey-literary-and-potato.html
    It is such a great book to read with a cup of tea and some chocolate!

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  9. How wonderful that you have chosen to review this book. A book that is different. I loved it and totallty agree with Heidenkind about the author. Along with Donna Hosie, I sent copies to friends. What delights me is that you have posted a photograph af the author and her niece. I always wondered what they looked like.

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  10. Great review, Hannah. I've avoided reading this for precisely the reason that it seemed really saccharine sweet. Thanks for validating me! LOL

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  11. The Guernsey Spud book - love it! AND I loved the book. We read it for our book group about a year ago and had a rousing discussion. I actually found it to be an interesting way to tell a bit of war history that no one I know seemed to know about in my little circle of life. A book group invented to avoid the Nazis.

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  12. Hannah, I think for some reason my comments haven't been getting through. Anyway, about the post: It was a wonderfully objective review on a book like this. Not everyone can do it. As for me, I think its charm lies in the fact that it is something one can go back to again and again. You can't really say that for many war stories; and this is one, even though the war is not given central importance.

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  13. I absolutely loved this book, though it's definitely not a literary masterpiece. I loved how it's written in letters and deals with some heavy themes without being too heavy. I'll link to your review on War Though the Generations if that's okay.

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  14. I enjoyed the book a lot, despite many people criticizing it, but as you so wonderfully said:

    >The wonderful thing about the book is that it is a fabulous idea, not that it is a fabulous novel. It is about a neglected cranny of history and it is a neatly written, good book.

    I really felt that way as well--I felt good reading the book, which you really can't argue with!

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