Set from before WWI and into the mid-1960s (ish), this is the fictional life story of the titular character, Ebenezer, as seen through his eyes and written as an autobiography. He is a simple man, not highly educated, and has lived in Guernsey and in the same house his entire life. His world is made up of the many friends and family members and other island eccentricities, all of which he, with keen observations and canny people-reading skills, captures in perfect detail and with all their many shades of color. We live his entire life with him as he relates the ups and downs in a tone that is often satirical, sometimes cynical, but never insincere or inconsistent. People around him describe him as a man who always knows his mind and getting to know this mind, to live in it for the duration of the book, has truly been a wonderful experience.
The book is written in three parts as Ebenezer, towards the end of his life, wrote it out in three volumes over long evenings, by lamplight, in his solitary old home which had been handed down through the generations. There is some lovely Guernsey patois here — a forgotten, quaint way of speaking now. As he writes:
It is my life-story, but have a lot in it about my relation and friends, and people living on Guernsey for the last sixty or seventy years . . . I have tried to put down the worst as well as the best, but you got to read between the lines.
While this older Ebenezer comes across as a cantankerous old man who does not like change (e.g. TV, cars, tourists), it is easy to see that he is also a man who loves and trusts certain people easily and will stand by them to the end, no matter what. Whether that’s his best friend Jim, two cousins Horace and Raymond, or his long-time love Liza, or, in his final days, the young couple Neville and Adele, who become like the children he never had. Through Ebenezer’s eyes, we get to know and love these people and their stories too. He outlives most of them and yearns for them with a love that is both sweet and strong as ever.
Towards the end, when he is anxiously going around visiting his third/fourth cousins to figure out who to leave his home, belongings, and money to, he realizes that the world is full of a different kind of people altogether than the ones he loved and grew up with. His slowly-growing disillusionment is also a sort of grief for the life and people past and gone forever. Neville, who’s every bit the renegade Ebenezer was in his own youth, enters his life at just the right time, giving him hope and bringing back some of the joys of his boyhood friendships.
There are so many beautiful vignettes in this book. I loved, especially, a rip-roaring scene where a young Ebenezer and his best friend, Jim, go to a Wesleyan service to listen to Ebenezer’s great-aunt preach to a packed congregation of seamen. The entire sequence, from the description of the great-aunt’s disheveled witch-like appearance and robust sermonizing (with a prayer where she “told Him what He’d jolly well got to do”), to the sea captain-like, white-bearded great-uncle bringing out the booze at the end to “refresh our spirits in the Lord” at the end — this is one to reread and enjoy.
Guernsey itself is very much an evolving, growing character in this story. Ebenezer shows how this little island is jolted out of its naive, innocent ways with each War, the German Occupation, and the post-Occupation submission to the English government and culture. With the onset of mainstream tourism, he decides that it has become a “whore of an island”. Yet, he never stops loving it and the Guernsey of his younger days finally rises before him majestically one evening during a surprise car-trip to the other end of the island — where he has not been for some thirty-forty years. His heart is full of his life’s key moments and memories flashing before him in those brief minutes — all experienced on that side of the island. He turns to Neville as they both look at the setting sun over the ocean and, borrowing the words of his favorite, much-loved cousin, Raymond, says:
It is a glimpse of the world as God made it, on the first evening of the first day . . . It can never be painted.
Towards the end, when Neville comes upon Ebenezer writing in his third book, the latter tells him:
I wrote it for company, really. I don’t expect anyone will ever want to read it. It is my life-story, but have a lot in it about my relation and friends, and people living on Guernsey for the last sixty or seventy years . . . I have tried to put down the worst as well as the best, but you got to read between the lines.
And that is the true feat of this book. G B Edwards gave us a lot more to comprehend between the lines. We learn about the different existential and religious conflicts of the time through the life of the favorite cousin, Raymond. We see the post-Occupation commercialization and its impact on Guernsey culture and heritage through the stories of tourists and the Islanders who worked to benefit from the new industry. Attitudes towards taboos like homosexuality and infidelity are shown as evolving over the years through various characters. G B Edwards created a microcosm of Western civilization, showing its evolution during this specific period through a focused lens on one beautiful little island and its colorful inhabitants — all told by a lovable and unique-voiced narrator.
Yes, reading this book felt like sitting by a log fire and listening to an old friend talk, open his heart out to you. And, just like you miss that friend and those fireside chats later, I am already missing Ebenezer and will return to this book many times over the years, I’m sure.
[Note: Some readers/reviewers of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows have likened it to this book because of the WWII setting. While I loved Shaffer and Barrows’ book, I found it very different in many ways. The protagonist being an Englishwoman, the narrator’s voice is, obviously lacking the Guernsey patois and the letters that she receives from some Guernsey people contain very little of the local jargon or slang that occurs naturally in oral conversations. Even the Guernsey characters are different as seen from the English narrator’s perspective rather than one of their own (as in the case of Ebenezer le Page). And, G B Edwards’ graphic descriptions of Guernsey daily life, the island itself — these have yet to be surpassed since his book was first published in 1981, posthumously after several rejections during his lifetime.]