At first The Guernsey Literary etc. etc. reminded me of Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road. Epistolary narrative based on love of books, featuring England after the war… you’ll admit it’s close enough. Shaffer’s book, though, is fiction, so she can move away from the basic premise and start pushing her characters around the way a novelist should.
The principal of these is Juliet Ashton, a young woman writer (are you surprised?) who is casting about for her post-war voice. (We’re in 1946.) The rest of the cast belong either to her literary life in London (publisher, best friend) or her new friends on Guernsey. It’s adroitly put together: Shaffer eases you into harrowing passages then cuts away briskly. Fortunately this isn’t really an adorable tale of cute oldsters founding some primordial wartime book group. Guernsey — who knew? — was occupied by the Germans beginning in 1940, and the privations included not only extreme shortages of food, fuel, and soap, but also a news blackout. What’s more two of the characters narrate their experiences in Continental camps (Ravensbruck, Belsen) and nothing could be further from cutesy than that.
A few of the characters are annoying: there’s a witch, a rustic who dreams up dreadful food (shades of “The Vicar of Dibley”) a spiteful spinster, a rich American with gleaming teeth. But there’s also a delicious stubborn four-year-old. Best yet, the diction — word choice, turn of phrase — is excellent. Juliet Ashton sounds English enough to have fooled me, and I’m a terrible pedant about this.
This title, by the way, would never have worked before computers brought us the auto-fill feature.