For some reason I expected this book to be similar to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society because they were both set on the island of Guernsey. This is a bit like expecting Absalom, Absalom! to resemble The Help because they were both set in the American South. It wasn’t the book I expected: it was far better.
In fact, this is probably the best book that I’ve almost given up on in the middle. I almost set it aside not because it wasn’t good, but because I was finding it so heartbreaking. Not heartbreaking in a dramatic, violent way, but in a way that put me in mind of Thoreau’s quote: “…most men lead lives of quiet desperation…” Even by the middle of the book, I loved the characters so much that it was painful to watch them flounder, lose their faith, suffer under spiteful spouses, despair.
The reason I kept reading was the voice of the narrator, Ebenezer le Page. His crusty conversational tone as he tells his life story is both endearing and riveting. I felt as though I was sitting at his rough-hewn wooden table, listening as he rambled through near-forgotten corners of his past, and that it would be unfair and rude of me to turn away.
Yet it wasn’t an easy story for me to hear as a woman. So many of the female characters in this book are cruel and petty – in a very believable way. The few positive female characters are lovely, but when Raymond comments that men are doomed to live with women, I nearly cried. Because at that moment in the book, the statement seemed so true.
One of the beautiful things about this book was that it focused more on the humanity of a man’s life than on the historical events surrounding it. The German occupation of Guernsey was only one episode in Ebenezer’s life, and not the most defining one at that. It was easy to see that the author was near the end of his life when he wrote this book – it has a depth and richness in its storytelling that seems to only come from authors who have lived long, full lives.
I didn’t think a happy ending was possible in this book, yet I found myself deeply satisfied at its finish. As he tells his story, Ebenezer leads us along pathways filled with atrocity, absurdity, and apathy, yet he is still able to find sparks of hope in the next generation. I found this story to be incredibly moving but also very difficult to read, yet I’m sad that it’s over. I miss the sound of Ebenezer’s voice.