This is one of those books that I’ve been meaning to read for some time, the focus being the German Occupation of Guernsey. Living in Jersey which was also occupied this is a familiar subject as the history of this time surrounds me with the bunkers and fortifications left behind as well as the German Underground Hospital which has now been rebranded as the War Tunnels.
The beginning of the book strongly reminded me of 84 Charing Cross Road by Hannah Hanff, not only is this an epistolary but one of the earliest letters from Dawsey Adams, Guernsey to Juliet Ashton, the chief correspondent, mentions not only a book that belonged to her but a request for a book, there being no book shops left in Guernsey in 1946.
Juliet responds “I wonder how the book got to Guernsey? Perhaps there is some sort of secret homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers.” What a delightful idea. Juliet is a novelist, her witty war-time column has been collated into a book and she is doing a tour of the UK to promote it. She corresponds to her publisher, also a friend, as well as a close friend in Scotland and then prompted by Dawsey’s mention of The Literary and Potato Peel Pie society she begins to probe at the stories, and the flood-gates open as the Islander’s oblige.
German Army Band in the High Street courtesy BBC Guernsey
Juliet gets to know the inhabitants, even those who disapprove of the project, the nasty minded Christian who is determined to tell the author all about the society member’s failings, but as more stories are told Juliet realises that she wants to visit the island of Guernsey and see her pen-pals in real life. The genius of this book is the perfect mix of horrific stories, those people who were deported, those who lived in fear along with the lack of food, but these are balanced out by some tender moments, with memories of bravery and humour and compassion, not least at the society’s meetings. There were some letters that took my breath away despite being familiar with the nature of the events that occurred.
Guernsey – The Telegraph
But this isn’t just a book about the island the letters also tell us about Juliet, her burgeoning relationship with a publisher, her friendship with her own publisher and friend Mark Stephens and his sister Sophie, living in Scotland with two young children. This mix of her private life with fancy dinners and hotels with the correspondence with the islanders who are rebuilding their lives following the departure of the Germans further highlights the horror of wartime.
I can’t recommend this enough, I wouldn’t have thought it possible to pack so much into a bunch of letters but the author has constructed this so well, reporting items back to her friends as well as corresponding directly to the Islanders giving a light and chatty overtone to the darker moments.
I believe this book is being made into a film although rumour has it that it is being shot in Cornwall rather than Guernsey and I’m keen to see how the construct will alter to enable the audience to fall in love with the lightness of touch which makes this such an enjoyable read.