One of the best books I have read in the last five years, outside of a series, is The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Written entirely through letters, the story tells of the Nazi Occupation on the island of Guernsey during the post-war consensus, a name given to the period of British history starting at the end of World War II in 1945. The novel’s protagonist, Juliet Ashton, is a successful war-time columnist who has recently become a published author of notoriety.
After receiving a letter from a survivor of the Guernsey occupation, Ashton becomes immersed in a unique society, where the books are as alive and as integral to the story as the people and the time. The members are affectionately quirky, resilient and display the kind of strength of character everyone strives for. At times heart-wrenching, the story that unfolds through the deepening connection of Ashton and the society members, is of historical fiction at its best.
Shaffer creates a fresh snap shot of a well-documented time in history. Instead of painting the same old face on the subject, she makes the period come alive in a way that is at times both vibrant and horrifying. Despite its being set over sixty years in the past, we as readers are given the opportunity to experience living history. Making it a personal journey, rather than a retelling of clichéd facts and figures.
The portrayals of her characters are detailed and just, weaving an enchanting world alongside the devastation and horror of war. At times taken to the extreme, the story never falls so far out of bounds as to be a true distraction. Intertwined is the romance of Ashton and islander Dawsey, drawn together by their love of the same author. Shaffer seems to invoke Jane Austen, in her interior-like depiction of the romance. From background to foreground, the character’s love unfolds with elegant suspense.In the acknowledgments, Shaffer comments that “I hope, too, that my book will illuminate my belief that love and art, be it poetry, storytelling, painting, sculpture, or music, enables people to transcend any barrier man has yet devised.” And her novel is a testament to that belief, as the characters allow their love of reading to transport from their hell, to survive what they might have otherwise not. Through the power of friendship and the written word, they again find hope in the human ability to connect and evolve. A great first work by a writer taken to soon to appreciate the success of her tale.