What is it About Islands?

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

I have always wanted to live in an island.  Maybe it's longing for the sea while living in the middle of the country, or wanting to be set apart from the rest of the world, but I have often thought with longing about a small house overlooking the sea, reached only by boat.  I've always thought Nantucket or Martha's Vineyard (I am a New England girl by temperament if not by birth), but after reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Annie Barrows and Mary Anne Shaffer, I think that the Channel Islands might be a good choice as well.

The novel is told through letters and telegrams between Juliet Ashton and various residents of the island of Guernsey in the months after the end of World War II.  The Channel Islands were occupied by Germany during the war, and the residents were completely cut off from the rest of England.  For five years they had no news about what was happening in the rest of the world-no newspapers, no radios, no letters from family or from their children, who they sent to the mainland before the invasion.  One night, after dining on a forbidden pig with friends, a group of islanders was caught out after curfew.  On the spot, one brave young woman, Elizabeth, created a fictional literary society to explain why they were out together.  In order to put the truth to their lie, the small group of friends created an actual book club, and their meetings allowed many of the members to keep their sanity in the midst of war.  Years later, one of the members contacts Juliet Ashton, a journalist and author, to say how much he enjoyed a book that once belonged to her that he found in a used book shop.  Their correspondence leads Juliet to the island, and to a story both tragic and triumphant of love and friendship in a time of war.

I started out thinking that I was not going to love this book.  I am not that fond of epistolary novels, and the last one I read (check out my not-so glowing review of Between Friends) was so bad that I almost put this book back down once I'd picked it up.  But after resisting the pull of the story for 50 pages or so, I was drawn completely into the lives of the characters.  Juliet reminded me of a character from a period mystery I read recently (this time a glowing review of A Duty to the Dead)-a spunky, scrappy, snarky, but ultimately kind and loving young woman.  And I think that the reason that this worked where Between Friends did not is because each of the letter writers had such a distinctive voice.  Despite everything being told second hand, the novel felt very intimate and personal, and I felt like the character development was pretty good.  But what really made the novel work for me was the historical events it was based on.

I knew that the Channel Islands were occupied during WWII, and I already had some vague idea about their relation to France and England politically (which is to say, they "belong" to England but have their own government, a bit like Puerto Rico, I suppose).  But this novel filled in some details in my admittedly sketchy picture of that period in British history.  And like any good historical novel, it led me to do some more reading and research on the topic.  Rather than using lots of long exposition to provide background, the stories of the islanders comes out in dribs and drabs over the course of Juliet's relationship with them, and the novel feels light and easy to read, while at the same time having some substance-not an easy balance to maintain, but one that Burrows and Shaffer pull off rather well.

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