When the times are dark, the soul often finds surprising sources of light. A novel about the redemptive and transformational power of the written word…

Marcel Proust the great French novelist and philosopher, once said, in reality, every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self...and the recognition by the reader in his own self of what the book says is the proof it its veracity.This is an axiom that underlies not just the best novels but also the ideal reader, who can confirm the best and the worst of his or her life through the experience of reading a good novel. In The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a novel that comes more than a century after Proust's observation, the protagonist observes that perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers.Thanks to Proust, we can understand why this particular book finds all its perfect readers, affirming as it does the best parts of being human, and that too against the backdrop of an inhuman war.

It is 1946, and the island of Guernsey, the only part of England that was actually under German occupation during the Second World War, is slowly putting itself back together. A spirited London journalist, Juliet Ashton, decides to visit the island in response to an odd assortment of letters that she gets from members of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Juliet is intrigued in the first instance by the Society's name and then by a letter from Dawsey Adams, a vegetable and pig farmer. In that letter, Dawsey asks her about a book by Charles Lamb because he chances upon her name in a second hand book that he bought in Guernsey. Delighted to find that like her he is passionate about books, she learns about the extraordinary circumstances that led to the founding of the Society, and then decides to travel to Guernsey to find out more, in the hopes of perhaps even writing about it. Juliet soon finds that she is inexorably drawn into the lives of these remarkable people.

Initial connections

The novel unfolds with a flurry of letters: from Juliet to her friend and publisher Sidney Stark and to his sister Sophie. From Dawsey Adams, Isola Pribby, Eben Ramsey, Amelia Maugery and several other members of their book club to Juliet and from Juliet to all of them, the letters building up into a chorus of voices that testify to individual stories of courage laced with humour and the possibility of hope during a time of war. The citizens of Guernsey, it seems, also know that it takes imagination and cleverness to survive the brutal presence of the Germans in their midst. In their efforts to hide a roast pig dinner (all pigs had been commandeered by the Nazis) Elizabeth McKenna, one of the Islanders, invents a book club as an alibi when Nazi soldiers hold them up at gun point late one night for inadvertently breaking the curfew. When the Commandant insists on attending their book club meeting by way of checking on their story, the book club becomes a reality. As Amelia Maugery, one of the founding members, says, “We read books, talked books, argued over books, and became dearer and dearer to one another.” War and scarcity notwithstanding, a potato peel pie soon becomes their regular repast at these meetings, made without sugar but with beets for sweetness and potato peelings for crust.

Strong bonds

What begins as a life saver soon becomes a life line and as Juliet soon discovers, the core members not only show an interest in Shakespeare, Seneca and the Brontes, but are also fiercely protective of one another. With friendships strongly forged despite local gossip and criticism, they collectively raise Kit, the four-year-old daughter of the brave Elizabeth McKenna, who has been taken away by the Germans, and sustain one another through the desperate times. When the German troops landed and when tomato lorries were bombed, and women and children killed, the consolation after the raw grief subsides is the insight that literature provides and the hope that there may “be an end to the sorrow of it all”. The words of Thomas Carlyle echo in their thoughts: It is a pity we have lost the tidings of our souls...we shall have to go in search of them again...and the book club members struggle to hold on to their humour and their humanity. Eben Ramsey tells Juliet that as he watched the Germans coming off the ships all he could think of was damn them damn them, damn them, over and over. If he had known, as he did later (because of their collective reading), better words like Shakespeare's the bright day is done, and we are for the dark, he would have somehow felt more consoled instead of feeling his heart sinking to his shoes, he declares.

Unique book

Juliet's surprising love story is interwoven with that of her new friends on Guernsey. The tragic tale of the defiant Elizabeth captured by the Nazis is also a steady undercurrent in this unusual book. The offsetting of the cold realities of war with stories of the quirky and plucky members of the book club is essentially a celebration of the written word and its transformational power. This is a book for book lovers, book clubs and for everyone else who needs to reaffirm to themselves the redemptive power of literature.

nirmala@thehindu.co.in