Two more from the Christmas pile…

Two very surprising choices which turned up trumps.Both from The Broadway Bookshop in E8. Another independent bookshop whose survival depends on people like me reading books.

EbenNow, I have to admit that I probably would not have selected this book for myself, so thank goodness for the advice from the bookseller who told the donor that it was an interesting book. Indeed it is!

G.B. Edwards wrote only one book which he laboured over later in his life and which was published posthumously. While possibly not strictly autobiographical there are inescapable similarities in the lives of the writer and the protagonist.

The Book of Ebenezer Le Page is the notes and observations of a man well on in years who looks back over his insular life, the people and the historical perspective. A life that spanned two World Wars and changes to his island the like of which he deplores for its greed and short-sightedness. The book is full of characters native to the island, his friendships – losses and gains and his conflicted feelings about the Germans who occupied Guernsey during the War.

His childhood, friendships and schooling are summarily dealt with, with not a little humour. Ebenezer’s tone is dry, self-deprecating and sometimes harsh, his descriptions of people are exact, details of hair and looks seem quite a feature, especially as this seems to be a memoir, started in later life and filling, in the end, three volumes of a common stationery notebook.

His adult friendships include a very dear and close relationship with one man, who dies and with one woman whom he loves and dislikes but not in tandem with her, so that there are many and varied misunderstandings and for one reason or another they never “get it together”.

Guernsey is the jewel in this tale though. G.B. Edwards obviously loved it and knew it well, so the descriptions of the land, the sea and the sky are all brilliantly evoked. The island’s experiences during the German Occupation in the Second World War are exceptional. The privations, the black market, the “slaves” and the grotesque concrete bunkers and also the bombing of St Peter Port just as the tomatoes were waiting to be loaded on to ships are all there, together with some astute observations about the islanders’ behaviour – clearly there were collaborators and there were people who resisted. Ebenezer notes the people who remain blooming and those who nearly starve, he makes no public exposure but merely observes without naming names.

Then after the War come the tourists…and there is quite a lot written about them and about the effect they have on the island, gradually spreading all over the beaches and leaving their litter, the final insult being their interest in what the Germans left behind.

Gerald Basil Edwards was born in 1866 and died in 1976. His own life was a great deal more varied than that of his protagonist and it seems that he did attempt to get his book published during his lifetime, he bore his rejections with a stolid patience and on dying left all his works to Edward Chaney. Most of his life he lived on Guernsey, but was more widely travelled than Ebenezer and at one time worked at Toynbee Hall and the Workers Education programme in London.

This book is almost impossible to categorise. It is a narrative fiction very much in the style of Lark Rise to Candleford, but his world is seen through clear spectacles and has none of the rose-tints of Flora Thompson‘s famous trilogy.

One thing GB shared with Ebenezer, though, was his absolute horror and detestation of the fate of Guernsey (and indeed the other Channel Islands) in becoming a tax haven and a tourist destination which he regarded with suspicion and disgust.

It is an interesting and compelling book, part memoir – part history. I loved it.

The other book, given by the same person, is both very different and also equally enjoyable.Merle

The Brethren is the first part of a French trilogy, only now being translated into English. The second part, City of Wisdom and Blood, was due to be published last year. Robert Merle has been described as a latter day Alexandre Dumas. I cannot quite agree, since Dumas’ novels, especially those about the three musketeers are swashbuckling romances, while The Fortunes of France trilogy is much more concerned with the historical divisions wrought in France between the Roman Catholics and the new Calvinist-Protestants – known now as the Huguenots.

Our protagonists, the eponymous brethren, are two warriors from the conscriptions of François I – having fought together in these legions for seven years and they departed on the death of Jean de Siorac’s father. The other party was Jean de Sauveterre, companion in arms and steadfast in loyalty. They leave together to search for land on which to live, buy a chateau with some land and work with three other soldiers from their legionnaire history.

Far from reminding me of the Dumas romances, this book reminded me of the French Kings series by Maurice Druon, which began with The Iron King. Though I see from my copy, that he is also likened to Dumas.

The Brethren is set in Périgord, in sixteenth century France. At that time a fairly wild area on the margins of royal authority. Sparsely populated, still full of plentiful forests of oak, with wide, steep valleys and rivers. Fortified chateaux and well protected towns were often at the mercy of roaming gangs of brigands and gypsies, and all of them at the mercy of the plague, drought and famine from time to time.

I look forward to continuing this saga…

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