This is another lost book, not because the notebooks were hidden away after the death of the author as with Suite Francaise but because after its publication in 1981, it seems to have sunk into the obscurity that awaits most books. As a writer, I find it rather depressing the way most books are read for a season and then disappear, no longer available from the publisher. I also have my doubts about which books make up the canon, the ones that live on in literature courses, but that’s another discussion.
Although I read a lot and widely, I had never heard of this book until its reissue last year from New York Review. What a treasure! I don’t know when I’ve enjoyed a book so much. Each time I picked it up, I started by going back a few chapters for the joy of reading them again before going on.
This is Ebenezer’s first-person narrative of his life on Guernsey, the island he left only once, to go to Jersey to play in a football match. It covers a period of great change in the life of the island, from the early days when everyone knew—and gossiped about—everyone else to modern days when Guernsey has become a tax haven and tourist destination. Ebenezer quarries granite with his father, watches his friends go off to fight in World War I (which ended just as he was about to be called up), suffers under the German Occupation during World War II and what he calls the English Occupation that follows.
What makes the book so great is Ebenezer’s voice. His sentences are calm and straightforward, but often with a wicked dig at the end. “My father was killed in the Boer War. He went off and joined the Irish Brigade and fought for the Boers.” “There was a mystery about Princess Zubeska. She had red hair like Eugene, but it was grey when she came to Guernsey.” I sometimes had to read such lines a couple of times over to be sure. Other times I just had to laugh out loud: “I thought they might make it up the day they went to Sark, since Raymond said Sark was heaven on earth; but it was rough coming back and she was seasick all over him.”
I usually loathe books written in dialect, but here it is handled so well that I loved the way it added to Ebenezer’s distinctive voice. It’s not overwhelming, but comes out sometimes in the syntax: “That’s why I have never left Guernsey, me.” Then, too, there are a few words and phrases in the Guernsey patois, a version of French, but never enough to be intrusive and always easy to understand from the context.
There is something I always find rather sad in a story—fictional or not—of an entire life, something about the early promises unfulfilled, the inevitable compromises with grief, the abilities lost or abandoned in old age. Yet my sadness here was tempered by an appreciation of this acerbic and entertaining personality, whose prejudices are balanced by his capacity for love and great friendship.
Edwards completed this, his only book shortly before his death in 1976. It was the first of a planned trilogy about life on Guernsey, and I can only mourn the unwritten books, as I do the last three books in Nemirovsky’s suite.