Folksy wisdom shines in one-of-a-kind novel; The Book of Ebenezer Le Page, by G. B. Edwards. New York: Alfred A. Knopf $13. 95.
A reader need not know of the Channel Islands to enjoy this remarkable book, found in an old house on Guernsey among the papers of the late Gerald B. Edwards. But only a true Guernseyman can feel all its reverberations, and here am I, two generations removed, attempting to share some of them.
Even as an American I am not wholly purged of these island roots. When G. B. Edwards, using the pen of his alter ego, Ebenezer Le Page, writes about inheriting the grandfather clock "made by Naftel, his name . . . on the front," my eyes dart across the room to the old timepiece that belonged to my grandfather. It has "Nich's Naftel" etched on its face.
And again, when Le Page speaks of a cousin working for the Greffier, Quertier Le Pelley, I smile in recognition, for that Le Pelley was related to this selfsame grandfather, Edward, who heard the tick and chine of my old clock as a boy in his home near St. Peter Port.
With these apologies, I offer myself as one to highly recommend this novel, Edwards's only book, unquestionably unique.
It is a story to be savored carefully, gently, its pervasive wisdom absorbed like the warmth of a jeweled island in the sun. The narrative has no conventional plot or structure. People and names flow in and out like the tides , as they are remembered.
The three copybooks in which Edwards painstakingly crafted the life story of Le Page and from which the novel is made were rendered in the island's quaint, colloquial English, which makes the sorrows and joys of his story cut deeper.
"The Book of Ebenezer Le Page" can be read as a many-layered love story. It records the passionate attachment of islanders to their island; the regard a community can have for one another beyond petty hatreds; Ebenezer's poignant, bittersweet enduring love forLiza, a woman he never possessed; and an instinctive longing to understand the underlying truth about the relationship of man to God, which Ebenezer and a few others try to see in the untidy world around them.
What makes the story shine is the treasure of arcane wisdom it contains, spoken offhandedly, or not spoken at all but only implied in the remarks of these quarry workers, seamen, and farmers.
As you read, you understand why island wisdom seems so ageless. Unlike mainlanders, who could leave unfriendly neighbors behind in a flight to a new town, the island people had nowhere to go. Through generations of closeness they had to fashion a suitably tolerant understanding of each other or perish.
Le Page's relatives and acquaintances were such people. His father displayed the Guernseyman's disregard for the English by going off to Africa to fight and die in the Boer War --ezer was still a child.
Ebenezer's maternal grandfather had been a preacher. His mother, parochial and creed-bound, read the Bible "day and night," which may have fostered Ebenezer's strong personal religiosity as well as his tendency to keep away from churches.
But it is Raymond and Horace, sons of his sisters, who probably do the most to influence his life. Horace is a sort of Cain to Raymond's gentle Abel, pulling an ominous thread of tragedy through the story.
Raymond, who, like his great grandfather, has a bent for preaching, constantly struggles to correlate his view of the Creator with the flawed truth of a mortal world. In the end he is defeated, but not the salty Ebenezer, who somehow thrives in contrary winds.
Raymond believed man was "doomed to Woman," Le Page records. ". . . I know for a fact he never got square with the business of man and woman. He never found out how they can live together on earth without killing one another off in some way or other. I can't say I have either." Yet Ebenezer rises above Raymond's bitterness in his lifelong love for irascible, forbearant Liza.
The book does not dwell on tragedy or bitterness. It is laced with humor. Readers will chuckle over what seems to be an important island pastime -- deciding to whom to leave one's money. In his later years Ebenezer becomes a skillful player at this game.His comic antics in arranging secret tests to determine the worthiness of a potential heir are exceeded only by his startling choice in the end of the most unlikely person of all.
Forming the backdrop for Ebenezer's personal saga is the island itself, becoming less isolated, more open to foreigners over the decades. The starkest drama occurs in the 1940s.The years of German occupation are difficult on Guernsey, but for Ebenezer they offer an opportunity to analyze the sharp emotional divisions that determine right and wrong in wartime. Later, he comes to feel that the occupation, heinous though it was, did less lasting damage to the island than the onslaught of unfriendly Englishment after the war, swarming to Guernsey in search of an easy, tax-free life.
Through it all, the outreaching, crusty humanity of Ebenezer Le Page makes me love Guernsey even more than my grandfather must have. Though if I were to return I would be one of the dre ad foreigners; Ebenezer wouldn't like my coming back.