Annie Barrows on writing Guernsey's history


Annie is returning to the Channel island for the sixth time this year to speak as part of the Heritage75 festival.


“I love Guernsey!” Annie beams as we begin chatting about the island’s Heritage75 festival this year. “Every time I go there, I feel beloved—particularly the last few times when I’ve been staying at The Old Government House Hotel where I’ve felt so well taken care of.” Annie Barrows is the author of several acclaimed novels, including The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which takes for its Muse the fascinatingly complex, under-explored and deeply personal story of the island’s German Occupation.

“I feel so honoured and touched that I am being asked to come and speak on this occasion—as an outlander. It almost renders me speechless sometimes to think that I am somehow considered to be somebody that can speak to the experiences of the people in Guernsey; that the book, which my aunt began and I finished, has come to represent the history of this island. It’s really an honour and an amazing feeling.”

Annie Barrows close up

Annie is returning to the Channel island for the sixth time this year to speak as part of the Heritage75 festival, which celebrates the 75th anniversary of the island’s liberation. “I am speaking as part of the festival and so I’m not really going to get to participate in as many events as I would like to. But I do have one, very particular goal: to finally get to the underground hospital which I’ve never seen. That said, every time I’m in Guernsey, I discover another piece of the story, which is utterly fascinating.”

In many ways, Annie’s encounter with Guernsey mirrors that of her protagonist, Juliet, who, through happenstance, becomes enchanted with the island and, through continued correspondence with its locals, is eventually drawn there. “I do feel like Juliet! Especially the first time I went,” Annie enthuses. “To first step off that ferry and see the island and that sparkling look it has, the pretty white buildings creeping up the hill, and to then explore the country lanes, lined with flowers and look out at the ocean from the cliffs—it’s just adorable, it’s just beautiful…Juliet was so lucky, she got to stay here forever!”

Annie Barrows attendees

Just as in 1946, when Juliet first arrived on the island, Guernsey is still rife with reminders of the German Occupation, which is why the Heritage75 festival is such a didactic event. “To me, the most striking thing about Guernsey is that you can see the evidence of the Occupation still—everywhere. The first time I went, in the morning I got up and was scampering down the beautiful little lane to the cliff, and I got off at the cliff and was like ‘oh, the beautiful wildlife, oh, the beautiful grass, oh, the beautiful cliff,’ la la la—until I fell over a gun emplacement.

It is that, that way their occupation permeates the landscape, which is just so shocking. You can see it; it’s in the land; it will never go away. That, to me, is history that becomes part of the literal landscape. You will never get the Occupation out of the land in Guernsey, and that is fascinating to me.”

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society perfectly captures Guernsey’s relatively unknown experience of the war, often lost amidst the famous battles that surrounded it. “The standard war narrative is the triumph of the heroic individual, which I think perpetuates war, in a way: an ideal of battle and triumph that is a direct descendant of Medieval fighting; it’s ‘guysville.’ The story about what happened in Guernsey is one not just of perseverance, not merely suffering, but one of people coming to terms with an enemy. And to me, this is a very important element of the book.

Annie Barrows panel

I feel that Guernsey’s history during WWII went unnoticed, or under-reported, for so many years, precisely because it’s this kind of story, because it doesn’t fit in with the war narrative that has come to be so predominant. I hope that the book gives authority and honour to the story of Guernsey, but also tweaks the idea of what a war story can be.”

In addition, Guernsey showcases the experience of women during the Second World War in a way that is often passed over in favour of more conventional narratives. “What you end up with over and over again are the outliers,” Annie tells us. “You’ve got the stories of the beautiful French hostess who is secretly working for the Resistance creeping through the mud and is eventually tortured in a German prison—whatever, that’s great; love those people. But really what women were doing was day in, day out, trying to find food for their families and take care of the sick; trying to make things work, because that’s what women always do.

Again, it’s a question of what we perceive of as adequate and satisfying narrative. And that’s what we need to change. So, I hope that Guernsey is tweaking this idea, because that was the story in Guernsey.

Annie Barrows

I feel that, in this point in history, it’s important for me to say that respectful imagining of women is critical, that truly imagining another person is an act of great respect and a sublimation of self. I feel that, all too often, the depiction of women has not been a sublimation of the writer but a projection of the writer’s fantasies. That is one commentary, but I also think that we have come, thankfully, to probably the most advantageous time ever for women writers. Even ten years ago, there was this distinct, ugly and frustrating difference: you’d look at the book reviews and see ten reviews of books by guys and one review of a book by a woman. I think we’re coming out of that phase, but it can’t go too far and it can’t go too fast. So it’s really a matter of demanding your voice be heard seriously.

How do you make that demand – Well, that’s tricky: don’t write easy, don’t write to expectations. When your editor says ‘oh, you have to make her nicer,’ you say, ‘No!’ Everyone wants women to be nice,” Annie chuckles. “Don’t do it!”

Annie will be speaking at Red Carnation Hotels’ The Old Government House Hotel on 26th–27th May. Stay at The Old Government House Hotel or The Duke of Richmond Hotel to experience Guernsey’s historical majesty.

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