Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Book of Ebenezer Le Page, by G. B. Edwards

I've been thinking about this book for awhile now, without quite finding the time or the way to commit my thoughts to print. This was yet another of the books I read for the New York Review of Books book group over on GoodReads. We were enticed into reading it by the video down at the end.

Ebenezer Le Page is the longest book we've read for this group and it perhaps bogged us down a little. I don't think I was entirely prepared for its style by the video, although I understand the video better after reading the book. The book of the title is basically the book that the eponymous character decides to write at the end of his life--a kind of reckoning or accounting. Le Page lives on the isle of Guernsey for his entire life, with perhaps the exception of a trip to neighboring Jersey. Or maybe the Jersey team comes to Guernsey--I can't remember. Guernsey's position in being closer to the French coastline but a British Crown dependency gives it a complicated history and complex population for such a small place. It was also occupied by Germany during World War II, which caused other divisions and allegiances.

I was expecting this to be full of a lot of colorful island lore, and I didn't quite find that to be the case. As I found myself constantly thinking, the tale of Ebenezer's life on Guernsey reminded me of nothing so much as of the stories my dad used to tell us about his life in a small farming community in northern Illinois. There is an intense preoccupation with local concerns, and the same sense of small local events being stored up in memory for a lifetime. It's interesting, because in fact, it's not as insular a community as it might sound (nor was my dad's). People do take off for North America--mostly Canada, if I remember right, and of course the two great wars of the last century impact the story in all kinds of ways.

Early on, Ebenezer falls for a girl who is either very right for him, or very wrong, and without giving too much away, let's just say it doesn't work out. Although several people reading this in our group thought that Ebenezer's friendship with Jim Mahy had more than a little of the homoerotic to it, it's indisputable that Ebenezer spent a lot of time inviting the lasses to lie down with him under the bushes. What I found interesting was that Ebenezer himself considers Liza Queripel "the one", and he abandons hope of having her very early on. One of the things I found most intriguing about the book was to see how Ebenezer lives a life without hope for about forty or fifty years longer.

This book crept up on me a bit. I never found it hard to read or a slog, but I didn't find it to be quite as dynamic as I expected either. There is no true suspense in it, as the narrator gives away much of the story as he goes along. But suspense isn't everything. In the end, I've come to feel that it is a wisdom book, a "how are we to live" sort of book. Perhaps it is a book geared for the middle-aged more than the young, because in a way it addresses how to live once youth's hopes and illusions have faded. It is mysteriously "like life" in the way it conveys how life goes on with its own mysteries, rewards and consolations despite our disappointments in it. The ending is actually quite beautiful in its picture of how one man transcends his own individual life and marvels at the whole.

If  you are willing to take this book on its own terms, without preconception, then I highly recommend it.  


  1. Yikes, is this an NYRB Classic? I read this on its initial release. I looked on the middle-age accommodation with a kind of puzzled interest, if I remember right.

  2. Classic in this case means I think that it has gone out of print and they have obtained the rights. When we were reading Berlin Stories, I learned that actually in some cases they lease the rights, which subsequently become available to other publishers before too awfully long.

    I like that the NYRB book site has a place where you can nominate a book to be republished by them if it's out of print. I'm kind of hoping that the next choice of the goodreads group will be the newly reissued Expendable Man by Dorothy Hughes.