An Uncommon Reader
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
Mary Ann Shaffer
Alan Bennett's Uncommon Reader is none less than Her Majesty herself, who trips over the Westminster mobile library van one morning on her way to take the dogs out. Slightly embarrassed, she borrows first one book, then another, until her growing love of books overtakes her love of duty and turns Palace life upside down.
Peppered with Bennett's sly wit, the book paints a picture of a life suffocated by protocol and what others think is best; the comedy derives in part from his tart portraits of Palace and Government functionaries, but also from the pastiche of reading as an act of rebellion. What could HM wish to read that is so incendiary? Crowley? Hitler? Not Harry Potter, that's for sure (she "saves that for a rainy day" with diplomatic aplomb; Mr Bennett clearly has low opinions of JKR).
Mary Ann Shaffer has no such highly-regarded protagonists: her novel comprises the exchange of letters between a London journalist, her London circle, and an eccentric group of Guernsey book lovers. Set immediately after WWII, journalist Juliet feels trapped in London: her flat has been bombed, the city is in tatters, and she can't think of a topic for her new book. When she receives a letter from one Dawsey Adams, who has come into possession of a book she once owned, he opens a window into a fascinating community of oddballs for whom books offered a means of resisting the German Occupation.
This light-hearted romp provides an insight into the realities of the Channel Islands under German rule leavened with lashings of good humour, and a dappy heroine of the Jane Austen mould (the scatterbrains – think Kitty rather than Lizzy Bennett). As with HM, the Guernsey Islanders find that reading one book leads to reading another, and if – unlike HM – their motivation is initially to put the Germans off the scent over a spot of curfew-breaking, their passion for their adopted hobby becomes just as real. In reading through their trials, Juliet too ends up on a journey into a maturity unglimpsed in her opening letters.
The result is a rallying cry for reading disguised as an aeroplane novel (although I notice that subsequent releases have more sobering covers, of the "please take me seriously (but not too seriously), I know it's hard with a title like this" variety).
Both these titles can only be described as delightful. They are easy to read, but subtly provoking, and I – naturally – must approve of their philosophy and subtext. As a certain hobbit once told a wayward cousin about stepping out into roads, picking up a book is a dangerous business: who knows where it will lead you, or what you will find there. You may even find yourself.