By Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.
World War II is over. “1-0, 1-0,” chant England fans. “2-1, 2-1,” chant German fans wittily in response. [A little topical satire about the result of the England-Croatia match at the World Cup in 2018 –ed.] Juliet Ashton, an author, isn’t quite sure where to go next with her literary career. By chance, she receives a letter from Dawsey Adams, who lives on the island of Guernsey and is a fan of Charles Lamb, and through him, she learns about the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.
Soon Juliet is corresponding with the various members of the Society and learning about life on the island during the German occupation, which wasn’t much fun for either side because of a shortage of food.
Hounded by the ghastly American, Markham V. Reynolds, who thinks she’s going to marry him, Juliet jets… sails off to the island to meet everyone in person, and fits in so nicely that long before the book reaches its conclusion, you know she’s going to stay.
Juliet also learns more about Elizabeth McKenna, who thought up the Society’s name when a group of islanders were returning home after the curfew and got caught by a German patrol. McKenna then has an affair and a baby (Kit) with a nice German officer (Christian Hellman), but her pluck and courage get her into trouble, and not in a good way.
Naturally, Juliet ends up adopting Kit, and there’s romance in the air, but Reynolds, who was only interested in her because she’d be an arm ornament, need not apply.
The Guernsey Literary Etc. is an appealing book, but never wholly escapes its American roots. Apart from one oversight that I noticed (note to Americans: we use walkingsticks; cane is used to make baskets and chastise obstreperous schoolboys), the book was written in English. I didn’t know what to make of Billee Bee Jones, Sidney Stark’s Americanly named assistant. I can’t imagine any Englishwoman in 1945/46 being called Billee, let alone Bee. No wonder she turned out to be a wrong ’un.
You can, however, play trope bingo (American style) with The Guernsey Literary Etc.. There’s a gay best friend (Sidney Stark), an adorable moppet (Kit McKenna), a defiant martyr (Elizabeth McKenna), a tragic romance (Elizabeth McKenna and Christian Hellman), a love triangle (Juliet, Dawsey and Markham), gender-role reversal (Juliet and Dawsey), and a bit of the old will-they-won’t-they (Juliet and Dawsey). Oh, and a city gal (Juliet) finds a home among plain, ornery country folk (Guernsey). (First prize: an eternal subscription to click bait articles from The Guardian, or an American TV series of your choice.) It comes across as a book which, consciously done or otherwise, was written to be turned into a film.
It’s all readable stuff till rather late in the book (probably the part Burrows was responsible for) when it switches from being an epistolary novel to the Diary of Isola Pribby Aged 34 and 3/4. At that point, I started hearing Christopher Boone from The Curious Incident saying, “And I did investigating in the bedroom. And there was threepence ha’penny under the bed. And I did investigating in the laundry etc.” I’m surprised Pribby wasn’t writing to Sidney, although the time frame would’ve made the outcome difficult to delay to allow for the passage of letters between Guernsey and London.
I don’t think the character of Elizabeth McKenna quite worked because of her absence as a direct voice in the text. Priestley did much better with Eva Smith in An Inspector Calls. When Juliet was floundering with her book based on all the stories she’d got from the islanders, Stark observed that the core of the story was McKenna, and then suddenly Juliet starts noticing that everyone’s talking about her, putting her at the centre of their stories, and yet her story is one among many. McKenna’s centrality is never effectively established, and there would have been other islanders who met with similarly tragic fates, but their stories are never heard. Perhaps it was also too obvious that McKenna hadn’t survived Ravensbruck.
Overall, The Guernsey Literary Etc. is an enjoyable, decent enough read which makes good material for a wholesome film.