One would expect the death of letter-writing to signal the end of the epistolary novel. But a quick search turns up quite a few recent examples, and set in the modern day. Humans have found more ways of communicating with each other than ever before; conversations can jump from emails to texts to a coffee-house hangout to Facebook. And all of these conversational methods can find their way into literature. (Yes, even text messages, though I confess I’ve never read an example of that.)
Epistolary format is appealing on a number of levels, not the least of which is you can make your characters feel like real people. There’s a stronger leaning towards realism in general if you make your story seem as though it’s a collection of found documents than a fictional narrative. But when it’s a series of letters the entire focus becomes conversations between humans, and we’re able to plumb the depths of human relations and understanding.
The plot is easy enough to summarize. Juliet Ashton is a writer in post-War England looking for her next project. She gets a letter one day from a man on the Channel Island of Guernsey who found her name in an old book that crossed his path. Through him she is introduced to the other members of the Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society, and their incredible story of surviving the Nazi occupation of their island.
The novel’s great strength is its diverse cast of characters, all of whom are given indelibly unique voices through their letters. We would never expect a pig farmer to speak like a young and sophisticated London woman — and he doesn’t. Each distinct character is kept distinct and they become as recognizable as if their portraits illustrated the book; they don’t, of course, nor is there a great deal of physical description of them, but none is needed. Juliet in particular is very well-rounded, since we’re treated to her correspondence between different people and get to see how differently she speaks to each of them.
Setting doesn’t seem like it would warrant much consideration in an epistolary format, but it takes on a great importance to the narrative. The island of Guernsey comes to be as well-evoked as the people who live there — not surprising since it is primarily the people which makes it such an attractive place to Juliet. One might even say the setting is the community rather than the island. True friendship is a deep and lasting bond, and it sometimes comes to us when we least expect it through channels we would not have believed possible.
Reading is often thought of as a solitary activity. But this book of letters is itself a love letter to books, and to the connections they can forge across great distances and social strata. One of my favourite quotations (often incorrectly attributed to C.S. Lewis) is “We read to know we are not alone.” In a way, it sums up the novel perfectly. To read someone’s book is to know the author’s thoughts; to share and discuss what we each think of a particular author is to know the reader’s thoughts. We begin with books. We end with people.
Read this book. You will meet some wonderful people.