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Monday, 14 March 2016

The Gurnsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Title: The Gurnsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
Author(s): Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Publisher: Bloomsburry
One of the ways to tell a war story is to build a retrospective narrative that shows life as it was, in sharp contrast with life as it is. When this is retold in the format of an epistolary writing structure, the power of the art of storytelling through letter writing situates you effortlessly in the heart of those very times. The novel starts off in 1946 London, and tells the story with experiences from the life and times of the author herself. Her book was a result of the encouraging ways of the members of a book club she belonged to, and the end product emerged in the form of this book.

Guernsey was occupied during the Second World War, and this provides a lingering backdrop for the book. Amidst tales of great courage and strength, there was also a shadow of terrible cruelty and heartlessness that existed. German soldiers stole food from the islanders - mere meals of turnip soup and parboiled potatoes that were cooked by being scorched on an iron.

The protagonist is a young writer from London, who falls in love with Guernsey. In the storyline, Elizabeth McKenna is a character told through the voices of other characters - and she develops a relationship with a German captain. The London-based writer, Juliet Ashton, falls in love with Guernsey - and so is, therefore, a young English version of Shaffer. Juliet is a funny and intriguing young woman, very self-aware and fully conscious of her right to equality. She receives a letter from an islander named Dawsey Adams who has, by chance, acquired her old copy of Charles Lamb's essays - and with their exchange of letters, she finds out about the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. The society began as an on-the-spot invention, when Elizabeth offered it as a story to the Germans as an explanation for why a group of her friends had broken curfew when they were really feasting on a secret pig.

Slowly, the society gains strength. They read and discuss books, and doing so becomes a refuge from their grimly ambiguous situation. What touches you most about the portrayal is the humanisation of the other - the enemy. Living alongside the enemy is treated as a norm, as an ordinary element in a lifestyle. The narrative looks  at enemies from an individual to a communal level - and that's ultimately shown not as an us-versus-them story, but as a realistic essay of human choices, and how these choices and matters of the heart transcend man-made boundaries in the form of enmity.