Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society – Mary Ann Shaffer

13 July 2010
To 5th April
I’m about a third of the way through this epistolary novel and… and it isn’t my kind of thing. Behind at least two sets of framing devices – tell you later – we get insights into life under the German occupation of Guernsey between 1940 and 1945. In the letters we get from the disparate members of the Society a picture emerges of life during wartime. It isn’t a hugely surprising picture: the slow erosion of rights, the gradual depletion of everything from soap to clothing to the bare essentials of life. And, running like a thread, the indomitable spirit of people who can not only live through it but have enough of a sense of humour to give themselves a club name that sounds like something out of Alexander McCall Smith.

Part of the pitch in the selling of the book, I suppose, is that Shaffer wants to show that it’s by no means all whimsy. There’s snobbery so appalling we gasp: the past really is another country (a well-trodden idea in a lot of modern novels). One sanctimonious woman interrupts the comfortable flow of letters by accusing the main pillar of the Society of gross indecency: she had a child whose father was one of the Germans. But, just in case we think the novel might be moving into an exploration of the sad inevitability of acts of collaboration, other correspondents soon put us right. The German is a particularly kindly and cultured specimen – he even likes Charles Lamb, the favourite of one of the Society members – and only a terrible prude would judge him as unsuitable. There’s hunger, heartache as children are evacuated – not to return for five years – and the constant threat of imprisonment or even deportation to labour camps on the Continent. But as I said, none of this comes as a surprise.

Nor does the central importance of everybody’s love of books. This is my main complaint. The London writer receiving all the letters is besotted by books – on the night before her wedding she shows her fiancé the door when he tries to put hers into storage – and the emerging message from Guernsey is that the only things that got them through the hard times were – well, guess. Pass me the sick-bucket. I’m not sure why I hate it so much, but it’s mainly to do with the self-congratulatory middle-brow fetishising of an activity that is, after all, only a hobby. But I’m one of those people who’s not bothered about second-hand bookshops (I find Hay-on-Wye boring), so Mary Ann Shaffer is always going to have an uphill struggle with me.

The framing device is as toe-curling as the rest of it. In 1946 a middle class writer of light-hearted articles about life during wartime – Spectator articles, for Christ’s sake – is bored and looking for something to do. What can she write about now? What will she do now that her bijou Chelsea flat, with all its lovely books, has been bombed out? What should she do about the hugely attractive American who fell in love with her wartime whimsy and has been sending her roomfuls of flowers? Am I supposed to care? (I take it that the clever way she has a fellow wartime fire-warden, who hates her, write a kind of anti-testimonial is supposed to endear us to her loveable little ways. She also has a vicar friend of the family send a proper testimonial, avowing her dyed-in-the-wool honesty and integrity. I was on the fire-warden’s side.)

What else? Shaffer seems to want to have her cake and eat it: one of the correspondents tells our Juliet – she had to be called Juliet – that they’ll be happy for her to write about their Society so long as she doesn’t make fun of the name (you know, the name that is one of the book’s cute selling-points). Er… she is also able to send useful bits of back story in letters to her bestest school friend; her publisher is the friend’s brother, who (yawn) clearly adores her, and the fire-warden says something about nepotism. I say, we seem to be stuck with this tiresome darling of the post-war middle classes and how she learns to love the lower orders because, gasp, they love books too. Let’s hope not.

15 July
To July – the middle third
The correspondences carry on more or less exactly as before until, half-way through the novel, Juliet gets on the mail-boat to Guernsey. The high-achieving, self-assured American, as part of a long-term campaign, drives her down to the port in an attempt to persuade her to give it up and marry him. What he doesn’t realise is that he’s a character out of an Ayn Rand novel, so we know he’s wasting his time in a book that consists of hymns of praise to the power and value of the ordinary. When our heroine – you know, the one who keeps telling us, oh so charmingly, how useless and difficult she is – gets to the island, guess what? Everybody’s at least as lovely in the flesh as they are on paper. (There are exactly two people on the island who are identifiably not lovely: the sanctimonious cow, and the tart – a lot of chapters short of the full novel – who grassed up the valet impersonating the local lord to one of her German shags.) This isn’t the Guernsey of the 21st Century, with its unbelievably expensive holiday lets, this is a pre-tourist Arcadia where everybody helps everybody else for nothing beyond a kind word and a book recommendation. Is that sick-bucket still handy?

Just before the point I’ve reached now comes the novel’s first surprise. Sidney, the adored brother of the bestest friend, the one who publishes Juliet’s stuff, has come out to the island and succumbed to its magical power. This power makes everybody, without reserve, say what’s in their minds with scrupulous honesty – useful in an epistolary novel: saves us having to read between the lines, ever. Sidney tells his eccentric hostess – they’re all eccentric, obviously – that of course he adores Juliet (yawn) but he can’t marry her because… he’s a homosexual. She doesn’t bat an eyelid, obviously.

Meanwhile… for pages now, since before Juliet’s arrival on Guernsey, the love interest has been turning towards – Dawsey. He isn’t an Ayn Rand hero, he’s straight out of Hardy. (Sorry to keep doing this, but I suspect Shaffer of having a mental card-index of characters and types just like this.) He’s Gabriel Oak, the quiet man everybody respects. He’s the one who gets things done, the one who, when he enters a room, causes everybody to breathe a sigh of relief. Now I think of it, it’s Sidney who says this. Maybe it’s Sidney who’ll settle down and be the farmer’s wife…. But I doubt it: Juliet is as besotted with the land- and seascapes of Guernsey in high summer as she is about everything else, and she is becoming less and less persuaded by the unquiet American’s increasingly urgent telephone calls. (I’ve just thought: the main attractions of this man are his clothes, his preternaturally white teeth and his leather shoes. And, in case we haven’t noticed, Shaffer has Juliet remind us that he never writes letters. Case closed.)

But is that all there is, as Peggy Lee would ask? Is that all there is to the process of recovery from a horrible war? Write nice letters, have a nice holiday with nice people in a nice place? Well, obviously not, even if most of the novel feels like that: there’s a Serious Purpose in here as well. Earlier on I mentioned the idea of framing devices, and the whole whimsical affair frames the dark story of German nastiness in general and their behaviour in Guernsey in particular. And Shaffer often drops in stories that sound like eyewitness accounts of real experiences on the island: there’s a 20- or 30-page booklet in there somewhere about what it was really like. This is ok, but it sometimes sits uneasily with the rest of it. Sure, some stories provide human interest that fits in neatly, like the way the islanders had to pretend not to know about the Normandy landings, because owning and listening to the radio was prohibited; but most of it seems bolted on.

However, Shaffer is determined to bring her serious purpose to the foreground, and she does it – how else would she? – through character. Early on, I mentioned the main pillar of the Society and her illegitimate child. This woman is Elizabeth. She’s the one whose quick thinking under pressure forced the Society into existence: they weren’t having an illegal hog-roast early on, they were meeting as a literary society. She’s the one who keeps everybody’s spirits up, helping people out and behaving, in general, like the all-round good sort who kept us all going in wartime. She even physically ejects the sanctimonious cow – you know, the one we know out of the small cast of characters Shaffer uses to represent an island of many thousands – when she upsets the evacuees with the idea of their parents’ probable deaths. You should have heard the cheers.

Anyway, she’s dead. We knew from earlier in the novel that she’d been sent to a labour camp because of a noble act – she’d helped a Polish slave-worker – and the islanders have been waiting for news of her for over a year. Now, in a letter (yawn), we find out that following another noble act – one I found hard to believe in its careless impulsiveness – she’s been shot. Which leaves the little girl, now four years old. As happens in novels, she’s exactly like her mother: self-willed and somehow powerful. Juliet describes, at tedious length, the strategies she has to use in order to become – guess – the girl’s favourite. Another character describes how the girl raises her hand imperiously when she doesn’t want spinach on her plate…. And now there’s the crisis of what to do with her. The Society’s ad hoc arrangements – they all look after her, because that’s the sort of lovely people they are – won’t do any more. Be still my beating heart.

18 July
To the end
Well, it carries on in exactly the ways you’d expect. As soon as I’d written about the pushy American, our heroine shows him the door almost as soon as he arrives, uninvited, to whisk her away to a better life. The war heroine stuff is dispatched nearly as straightforwardly: Juliet, having had it staring her in the face, has been manoeuvred into writing a biography of the saintly Elizabeth in order to prevent her book from being a mish-mash of anecdotes and random experiences. How we laughed at that self-deprecatory little joke. Er…. The four-year-old, Kit, needs a mother. How about Juliet? Yep, no problem.

But this is all going too swimmingly. Don’t proper books need a crisis or two? Shaffer dutifully brings on Crisis No 1: a Society member accidentally brings to one of the meetings a set of old letters, written to her grandmother. And, could they be… surely not? – Juliet can hardly stop her heart from beating right out of her chest – yes! Surely, the letters can’t be a previously undiscovered set of children’s adventure stories by Oscar Wilde? Bring an expert out to the island, quick – and, yes! They are written by Wilde! To a fetishist like this woman, it’s like – like what? – the best possible thing ever. But wait. Sidney can’t come and collect them himself, so he’ll send the trusted temporary secretary. She’s lovely, although Juliet is always suspicious of lovely people who don’t live on Guernsey, and Kit doesn’t like her. Guess what? She steals the letters to sell to the beastly newspaper man we’ve heard about! But the trusty Society members catch her! Hurrah!

Jesus wept. Bring on Crisis No 2: Dawsey doesn’t love Juliet. Funnily enough, I’d thought of Bridget Jones’s Diary from early on: ditzy, adorably useless girl about town – in fact, highly competent at what she does – who doesn’t understand the first thing about herself. And Shaffer signals to us in foot-high letters the same plot device as in that novel as Isola, one of the Society members, discovers Pride and Prejudice and its silly heroine who doesn’t see that Dawsey loves her. I mean Darcy.

Anyway, Juliet is certain that Dawsey loves the French woman who’s over on a recuperative visit, the one who wrote the kindly letter about Elizabeth all those months ago. How to stretch this dull little fiction out a bit longer…? How about making Isola also discover Miss Marple, and reach the same conclusion about Dawsey as Juliet? (She writes this in a private diary Shaffer swiftly has to concoct for her.) She goes snooping in Dawsey’s house while pretending to clean it, but, shucks, she can’t find any evidence. All she can find are some photos and mementoes of Juliet she’s obviously accidentally left there, and he’s accidentally hidden away among his private papers. She tells Juliet who, taking a shot of wartime spirit from the paperweight salvaged from her bombed-out flat, decides to seize the day. At bloody last.

That’s it. Everything that was going to happen from about half-way through the novel ends up happening. The end.

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