The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – reflection by Jennifer McDonald

Before a friend recommended I read this book by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, my knowledge or interest in the Channel Islands off the coast of Normandy was tenuous at best. The 1980s BBC TV series Bergerac (where a pre-Midsomer Murders John Nettles played a maverick detective, tearing around the island of Jersey in a 1947 Triumph Roadster) was about the extent of my acquaintance with these islands located in the English Channel.

‘That’s a bit of a mouthful for a book name,’ I recall saying to my recommender-friend at the time. She responded by saying The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was the most beautiful book with the most interesting backstory that she’d read to date.

Point of interest number one is that the book is an epistolary in its entirety. It is a carefully constructed series of letters from the main character, Juliet Ashton, to various people including (but not exclusive to) her publisher, Sidney Stark; his sister, Sophie Strachan (nee Stark); and a farmer from Guernsey, Dawsey Adams.

This paper trail of missives starts in January 1946, less than a year since the end of the war in Europe and Guernsey’s cruel occupation by the Germans. London is in ruins and Juliet has embarked on a promotional tour for her book Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War, a collection of witty and enormously popular newspaper columns poking fun at the war years in London when, presumably, laughter was at a premium.

As she is about to depart on her author tour, Juliet receives a letter from Dawsey Adams on Guernsey. Dawsey has come into the possession of a copy of Essays of Elia  by Charles Lamb that Juliet once owned, taking the time to write her name and address on the inside front cover. Through their correspondence Juliet learns of the hardships and isolation Guernsey residents endured during the German occupation and how the chance establishment of a literary society was their saviour.

I won’t tell you too much more about the plot, dear reader, because that would deprive you of the laughter, tears and astonished gasps that you will, no doubt, experience when you read it.  Suffice it to say that thanks to a clever, intricate and wonderous sequence of letters, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society reveals itself in much the same way as those National Geographic flowers blossoming in slow motion.

Point of interest number two is how the book came into being in the first place.  It is the first and only novel of Mary Ann Shaffer, a 70-year-old former librarian. Shaffer became stranded on Guernsey during a visit in 1976 when heavy fog grounded all the planes and kept the boats in harbour. It was in the airport shop that Shaffer picked up a copy of a book entitled Jersey Under the Jack-Boot which kickstarted her interest in the wartime experiences of the Channel Islands.

It took many years and much goading from her own book club before Mary Ann Shaffer wrote The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which was finally published in 2009. Apparently, Shaffer once said, ‘All I wanted was to write a book that someone would like enough to publish.’ Well, she got her wish but when the manuscript was in its final stages, Mary Ann’s health started to fail. She enlisted the help of her niece, Annie Barrows, also an author, to take over the final edits required to ready the manuscript for publication. Unfortunately, Mary Ann Shaffer passed away in 2008 without ever seeing the book in print.  One can’t help but be moved by this sad yet inspiring back story that speaks to a great love of books, writing and storytelling, without actually saying it out loud.

And now this beautifully written, heart-warming, tragic but uplifting book is a motion picture to be released Australia-wide on 19 April. Lily James (War and PeaceBaby Driver) plays Juliet Ashton; Matthew Goode (Downton AbbeyThe Imitation Game) is Sidney Stark, and Michiel Huisman (Game of ThronesThe Age of Adeline) is Dawsey Adams.

More than ever before, I hope the film’s director, Mike Newell (of Four Weddings and a Funeral Fame) not only stays faithful to the book’s story but captures the heart-essence of this amazing work.

The movie trailer looks promising and I laughed out loud at the last scene when Sidney Stark turns the first page of Juliet Ashton’s manuscript and says, ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Crikey that’s quite a mouthful.’ I know how he feels.