G(erald) B(asil) Edwards

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Eric Korn

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[The Book of Ebenezer Le Page is] the work of a self-exile, magnetically drawn to and held from his homeland, like Joyce Dublin, like a large molecule against a membrane.

Ebenezer's book is the roughly chronological, only incidentally historical or autobiographical recollections of an octogenerian bachelor curmudgeon….

Edwards's great success is in the forging of a character and a diction idiosyncratic in the extreme, but flexible enough for a variety of effects, and so easy on the ear that we don't mind too much what he is saying, or how he goes on (though we do a bit). Ebenezer's speech is a tidied version of Guernsey English, with a few words—too few really—of the Norman-French patois whose use, like that of much that is small and homely and good, has diminished during the period of the book….

There is lots of local colour, but the Chapel and the picturesque drunks and the clogs and the praise of local cuisine … should not make us see the novel as the kind of Sea-Green was my Valley; though admittedly Edwards's tone resembles Richard Llewellyn's with a gruff intertidal rumble instead of the ingratiating South-Walian lilt. Certainly he memorializes a time past and a place vanished; but he has metropolitan virtues and anxieties….

There are enough quarrels over inheritance and marriage contracts to remind us that Normandy is on the horizon. There is only one happy marriage, which happens to Ebenezer's sister La Tabby; and her husband, like Ebenezer's pal Jim, is killed in the First World War. (Edwards tends to fall into a heavy-breathing Housmanesque about the lads that will never grow old.)

But the impact of the Second War is more fatal to the Islands. During the German occupation there is opportunism, there is collaboration, there is courageous resistance: at the end of the war there was real starvation and those with less than the unkillable ornery greatness of spirit of Ebenezer were as dehumanized as the Ik.

After the war Ebenezer's account becomes dominated by a querulous distaste for change. But the old man learns tolerance of various kinds…. The book ends in a sort of sceptical rosy glow as Ebenezer, looking for a suitable heir, finds one in a young painter as cranky and place-proud as himself. If Edwards had gone on to write the two further volumes he planned, the whole trilogy might have tipped over into whimsy and monotony; but this single pillar stands as a fine monument to a particular place, and a particular, solitary and sure-footed skill.

Eric Korn, "Getting Down Guernsey," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1981; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4069, March 27, 1981, p. 334.

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