Sunday, 26 November 2017

#42 An epistolary novel

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society –Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows

An epistolary novel is one in which the narrative is conveyed entirely by an exchange of letters. The epistolary method is brought to life once in a while, and had its probable beginnings in the 18th century (eg: Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa and Pamela)  but these kind of novels which aim to limit the perspective of the story in every letter that is exchanged isn’t quite common. And there also remains the fact that it has to keep one entertained. Could reading an exchange of letters be entertaining or even remotely interesting? It definitely is a resounding yes if you are to pick up this book.

Narrated in the form of exchange of letters through the period of one year (1946) with Juliet Ashton who is a writer and living in London, receives a letter from Dawsey Adams from Guernsey (it’s an island in the English Channel)  who happens to get her address from an old book of hers which he bought during a sale. Thus begins an exchange of letters from one book loving soul to another.
As we get to know more about Dawsey and the inhabitants of Guernsey, we come to know of a very interesting society which lends its name to the book’s title. It has quite a lot of members and was first conceived as an excuse to eat roast pig during the German occupation of the islands during the wartime. The islanders were given strict rations and every live pig was accounted for. So keeping a pig hidden and then making a fine dinner out of it would have landed its ‘members’ in jail. So began the intriguing society and a literary one at that, to cover up for that one time they all had met to eat a roast pig. If that is hilarious, there are plenty more in the book. (I am not going to explain the second half of the title though, some mysteries are to be sustained till you read the book of course :) )

All the members of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society correspond with Juliet and she with them. There is also her also her correspondence with her publisher and friend Sidney and his sister, Sophie, who are all part of this heart-warming tale of a group of people who love reading and who found a way to bring love and meaning to their lives amidst wartime atrocities. 

"At the start we tried to be calm and objective, but that soon fell away, and the purpose of the speakers was to goad the listeners into wanting to read the books themselves. Once two members had read the same book, they could argue, which was our great delight. We read books, talked books, argued over books, and became dearer and dearer to one another. Other Islanders asked to join us, and our evenings together became bright, lively times - we could almost forget, now an then, the darkness outside."    (from Amelia's letter to Juliet)
Besides being warm and funny, the characters and lovable personalities of the islanders shine through in their correspondences and make us wish that we too could belong to a society as close-knit as they are. The story behind the authorship is also worth knowing. Mary Ann Shaffer was fascinated by her random visit to Guernsey that she used all she knew about the island and its history to begin writing this novel. However, she fell quite ill at a critical moment. As the book was nearing completion, she asked her niece Ann Barrows to step in and complete it for her. This is a memorable book in more ways than one.

If you have ever loved receiving or writing a letter by hand, pick this one up. If you have never had the pleasure to experience any of that , pick this one up, it will urge you to try writing a letter at least once in your lifetime.   

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