This is the second in my “unintentional trilogy” of World War Two novels — books I stumbled across, one after another, each of which revealed an aspect or a story from that war that I didn’t know much about. In fact I knew nothing about the historical event at the centre of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, the German occupation of Britain’s Channel Islands.
The novel takes place not during the war, but after, and is an epistolary novel in which the main character, a writer, gradually learns the story of the occupation of Guernsey through her correspondence with the members of a very unique book club that formed on the island during the occupation. Through the letters — and the letters she writes home after going to visit her new Guernsey friends herself — the story of their suffering and courage unfolds beautifully and naturally.
The atmosphere of postwar Britain and the love of books both permeate this novel so much that it’s impossible not to draw comparisons to 84, Charing Cross Road, which is of course not an epistolary novel but an actual collection of real-life epistles. The epistolary form can be somewhat limiting, but in the case of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society it is used so skilfully that the characters emerge as fully developed individuals in a vividly realized world.
I had one tiny quibble with the novel, which was that the romantic subplot of the story took a completely different turn from what I had expected and hoped for, and I feel this was due to a significant piece of information being deliberately and somewhat manipulatively held back until too late in the story. I can’t say more than that without spoilering it, but rest assured it is an otherwise minor complaint about what was otherwise a thoroughly enjoyable and engrossing — not to mention very informative — novel.