Top positive review
Road to everything
18 October 2018
Sometimes feel-good tales are just the tonic. Some say they’re sentimental slush. These critics can have their say. But in the long run all that matters is how you feel.
The story takes place on a small green jewel in the English Channel called Guernsey, a chunk of France (along with Jersey and other smaller islands) that was not fully submerged when sea levels rose after the last ice age, creating the channel. The years shown in the film are 1940-42 and 1946 after the war. The German army occupied the island in 1940 and turned it into a fortress, building concrete bunkers, tunnels and ammunition depots, their objective the invasion of mainland Britain, their destiny, they thought, the conquest of Europe and the world, the new Roman Empire in Teutonic form.
Some of the story will now be revealed in this review, so if you prefer to not know these details perhaps stop reading.
Half the native population of 40,000 fled to Britain before the Nazis arrived, mainly women, children, the elderly. Those who stayed on had farms or businesses to deal with. They thought they could endure, bending but not breaking to the Nazi will. Some succeeded. Others collaborated. Some perished. Some even loved. One lover was Elizabeth McKenna, a young woman who loved Christian Helman, a German solider forced to fight, but really just a young man like any other, a farmer from Saxony who was good hearted and peace loving. They were meant for each other and felt it the moment they met. A token of their love was Kit, a cute, blonde, precocious 4-year-old girl left behind by the tide of war, a tide that swept her parents away.
Kit’s grandmother is Amelia, a woman who hates Germany and the Germans for what it and they did to the world and Guernsey, and for what happened to Elizabeth, her only child and daughter, because of the war. She cannot forgive. Instead, her grief survives the war and almost becomes her identity. How could Elizabeth do what she did, loving a German (of all people)? The enemy was clever and insidious, menacing the people not just with guns, bombs and edicts but also love.
Kit’s guardian and protector now is Dawsey Adams, a local pig farmer and book lover. Kit was left with Dawsey when Elizabeth tried to help an islander sought by the Germans. Dawsey said it was too dangerous and tried to stop her. Actions deemed subversive after curfew were suspect and punishable by arrest and imprisonment, or even execution on the spot. But Elizabeth was stubborn, defying both Dawsey and the Germans. She loved Christian but not the German army. She told Dawsey she would return within the hour. She never did. Christian was also later lost at sea, his ship torpedoed. Kit now calls Dawsey “Daddy” because there’s no one else who can answer to the name. He loves her as if she is his own. Emotionally and spiritually she is. Kit means everything to him, and to Amelia, her existence the last link to Amelia’s silent, missing daughter.
Group assemblies of locals were forbidden by the Germans during the occupation. The only exceptions were official societies sanctioned and listed. Dawsey, Amelia and their friends formed their reading circle in an ad hoc, spontaneous way. They were caught out drinking one night after curfew by a German patrol. On the spot they made up the name of their society. Why the odd name? Because they are book lovers, they said, and because potatoes were the only staple left for them to eat because of privations during the war, their livestock and other goods confiscated to feed the German army. So books, potatoes and having each other were the things that allowed them to survive the war. Books were a lifeline to the lost pre-war world, to culture and the wider world. Potatoes were a means of sustenance, even the extremely awful-tasting potato peel pie. And the company of one another bound them together through love, faith and hope, their regular book-reading sessions the highlight of their lives during the occupation.
A stray book found its way into the circle. It was Charles Lamb’s “The Selected Essays of Elia” (1823), and in it was the handwritten name of its owner and her address: Juliet Ashton, resident of London. Juliet was a girl when she owned the book. Now, in 1946, she’s a young woman of about 26. She’s also a successful writer with a publisher and literary agent. She writes children’s books or whimsical ones for grown-ups. Her professional life is dominated by a typewriter and book-reading tours. She loves to write and read but hates to promote. Essentially she’s shy, as bookish people often are. She loves the world of imagination as much as she loves the real world, if not more so. She isn’t solitary. She has her characters, and she’s often happiest with them, not demanding people who want a piece of her.
One day in 1946 a letter from Guernsey arrives in London. Fan mail from one of the Channel Islands? Has her modest literary fame spread that far? Not quite. The letter was not sent to flatter. Composed in innocence, it’s one of curiosity and need. The war devastated many things, including books. Some were deliberately burned, others destroyed accidentally when buildings collapsed. Even now, in 1946, good books are scarce on the island. Dawsey, the letter writer to Juliet, is a local who knows no one in London. In the letter he describes his literary circle and their shortage of books. Juliet’s name and address are a link to a wider literary world, or could be for him. He wonders in the letter if she knows where more books by Charles Lamb might be procured.
Juliet responds in a generous way. She goes to Foyles, the famous London bookstore on or near Charing Cross Road, and buys a book that Dawsey and his circle of friends want to read but do not have and don’t know how to obtain. It is “Tales of Shakespeare” (1807), written for children by Charles Lamb and his sister Mary. Juliet is accidentally rich, a person who set out to write books, not make money. It sounds idealistic and naïve, but it’s real. Her literary agent Sidney deals with the money side — the bookkeeping, marketing, promotions, etc. She can’t be bothered to know, life too short for that sort of stuff. More interesting things abound. So even a small literary society on the island of Guernsey begins to sound interesting to her as the letters between herself and Dawsey accumulate. She is curious. And as fine and precious as the letters may be, firsthand would be better: real people with histories, memories and stories to tell.
Sidney tries to dissuade her. There’s nothing in it, no money, a waste of time, a dead end. The best that can be done is a deal with The London Times for her to write an article about the society. So, a compromise is reached. The latest book tour to the north of England and Scotland will have to wait as she journeys to Guernsey by boat to investigate. Yet journeys often have a life of their own. You think you know where you’re going and want to go there. Points A and B form part of a simple linear progression in your mind. But life isn’t linear. The road has many bends and unseen byways. There is no single destination either because there are many things to arrive at in life, so many things waiting to be discovered. This is what Juliet learns through her journey to Guernsey. She thought she was going there to write about a local literary society. But the stories she discovers there are really stories about her own loves in life, stories about good people and the crises they endure. Like young Kit, Juliet lost her own parents during the war. The London blitz destroyed her life with them. Parallels and sympathies that Juliet discovers on Guernsey will alter the arc of her own story.
Back in London she seemed to have it all: reputation, money, success. She even had a rich American fiancé from New York. He showered material love on her. One such token was a diamond-encrusted engagement ring. It is beautiful. She wears it at first like a queen. But on Guernsey it looks out of place and pretentious. Instead of wearing it on her finger she carries it in a coin purse for safekeeping. Later the American will see this as a sign of rejection. It is, though as yet Juliet doesn’t know it. The act of removing the ring is subconscious. New York? What has it got for her that’s better than Guernsey’s pig farms and local reading circle? Plus Kit is here on Guernsey, and so is Dawsey, Amelia and their friends. So are the memories of Elizabeth and what she deeply meant to all who knew her. What can New York and a diamond ring have to do with any of this?
I found the story sweet, lovely, touching. But that’s down to my weakness for beautiful things. There’s always sentiment in beauty because beauty is a feeling, not an object. It’s how we feel that matters, not what we regard as beautiful. The thing itself, the diamond ring or whatever, is just a reminder or signifier of that feeling. The love inside you makes beautiful the things you love. This is what Juliet learned on Guernsey. The dead end, the road to nowhere she was warned about, turned out instead to be the road to everything for her.