Monday, September 6, 2010

NYRB Challenge #44: In the Society of A Different Literary Guernsey. . .

Ever since being charmed - like so many other readers - by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows' The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, I've been wanting to read more about this intriguing little island and its history.  The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by G.B. Edwards completely fits the bill, and I couldn't have asked for a more charming, comic, and curmudgeonly guide than the novel's title character.

Ebenzer Le Page is one of the oldest inhabitants on the island and thoughout his life, he's barely set a foot off it. He's so old, he's outlived nearly all of his generation - and most of their offspring as well. As such, he's been a witness to the enormous changes on Guernsey, having lived through both world wars, the German occupation and  - what's almost worse - the British occupation of wealthy tax evaders and tourists, who have completely destroyed the traditional way of life and values of the island.  He decides to write the story of his life and evoke the island of his youth, because not only because of the physical changes, but the societal ones as well; people just don't talk to each other anymore:
They all make a fuss of me when I arrive, and shoo the cat off the armchair for me to sit in; but they are not really interested in anything I have to say. It is not that I want to say much; but I like to sit in a corner, and listen to people talking and put in my spoke now and then. Nowadays people don't talk among themselves around the fire like they used to. As soon as I've sat down and been made comfortable . . . I have to sit in the half-dark and look at the horrible T.V.; and you can't put your spoke in against the T.V.

He has plenty of material to put his spoke in. The stories he tells, mostly about his extended family of numerous cousins, are by turns hilarious and heartbreaking. There are his two aunts, Hetty and Prissy, who marry two brothers, build houses next door to one another and continue to bicker and disown each other for the rest of their lives. His well-meaning cousin Mary Ann has a habit of turning up, just when something bad is about to happen. His nervous on-again, off-again courting of the independent Liza is a recurring soap opera storyline; he never marries but doesn't hesitate to ensure us that he's "had it a few times under the hedge". He doesn't seem to mind the loneliness; almost every marriage he observes is an unhappy or manipulative one, and he writes with real bitterness when it affects those he loves. And despite all his cynicism and grouchiness, there's a real pain and sadness at the heart of this novel for those he's lost - his father killed during the Boer War, his best friend Jim who dies in the First World War, his cousin Raymond who steps on a German mine, and his sister Tabitha who, weakened by lack of food during the German Occupation, never really regains her health. There is also guilt; what Ebenezer doesn't write explictly about himself is as revealing as his supposedly dispassionate recollections, but he drops enough hints about how his pride and own self-righteousness marred those very relationships he most treasured.

If there is a central plot, it intensifies in the latter half of the novel as Ebenezer desperately searchs to find someone worthy - and still alive - to inherit his house and money (buried under the apple tree due to a lifetime suspicion of banks). His reasons for rejecting multiple candidates will make any reader smile who has encountered elderly relatives very set in their ways. This is a lovely, poignant novel. Ebenezer's gruff, yet lovable voice, sprinkled with the Guernsey patois incorporating a lot of French (there's a glossary in the back), has an emotional authenticity that complements his descriptions of the beauty of the island.  I certainly  want to visit Guernsey even more now, but sheepishly.  After all, how could I look Ebenezer in the eye?

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