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How does one compare a selection of books set on the same small island tucked away in a remote corner of the English Channel or 'Le Golfe Normand-Breton' if you prefer. The first two were published posthumously and have been hugely successful in both sales and reviews, the third by a living author has barely received a mention in literary circles. Perhaps this is typical of so many artists and authors who fail to receive just acclaim during their lifetime.
'Ebenezer Le Page' by G. B. Edwards is the 'Lark Rise to Candleford' of my trio and eminently more enjoyable for my taste. The story of Ebenezer is the whole adult life of a man entrenched in the ethos of a community isolated and excluded then invaded and occupied by the Germans in the second World War. He is dry and astute maintaining narrow interests with strong opinions, very much the Guernsey 'Donkey' of stubborn but forthright attributes. The man and the book are vividly accurate portrayals of the period and society on the island of Guernsey in the twentieth century and it rightfully earns it's place as the bench mark in Guernsey literature. My only caution would be that, like Lark Rise to Candleford, it can be somewhat laborious in places. True, you are completely immersed and to a non-local this may be an uplifting experience in itself. However, in common with my next choice, the prose overwhelms the plot and this is a book to read for comfort and appreciation rather than thrills or emotional contrasts.
Who could deny the justifiable popularity of 'The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society'? A beautifully written book by Mary Ann Shafer and published after her passing by her niece. This book is not like Ebenezer in that it lacks the local voice which one cannot help feeling is drowned by a pleasing but unauthentic New England lilt. No 'Le Pages' here and the author's fleeting single visit was insufficient to capture the 'under the surface' culture of the island. However, she did manage to capture the atmosphere of the period under German wartime occupation accurately and with sensitivity. This no doubt accounts largely for the success of this novel as many around the world had no idea that this tiny part of Britain, so close to France, was occupied. The epistolary form of this novel works well enough as a device which allows the author to build colourful characters in the absence of a compelling story line. This is achieved successfully and many content readers barely notice the fact. I was so taken up by the characters, I only really missed a plot after I finished and reflected upon what I had read.
Finally 'Rachel's Shoe' is the story of a young Jewish girl rescued from the German labour camp on the island of Alderney, once again during the occupation, by a local boy himself fleeing from the soldiers. Rachel's Shoe spans around thirty years and the starkest contrast with my two earlier selections is the riveting story line. This is a book you won't put down and long after you finish the taste will linger on. Peter Lihou lacks the finesse of both G B Edwards and Mary Ann Shafer, but this is like comparing John Grisham with Jane Austen. Personally, I have room for both in my library. I grew fond of the main characters and the villain made my skin crawl. I cried when the island was liberated and my head spun as the story continued into the 1970s.
Out of the three, Rachel's Shoe is the one that left me wanting a sequel most, just as well as sadly the other authors are no longer able to oblige. Don't misunderstand, I truly enjoyed Ebenezer's pithy local realism and the Potato Peel Pie completely satisfied my appetite. But second helpings? No I think not, another plate of pie would be too much for me and I think I now know all I need to about my dear friend Ebenezer. Rachel and Tom on the other hand, well that's another matter, I very much look forward to meeting them again, despite the well crafted conclusion, there is unfinished business for me here.
Kate Cavendish; 2009 Literary Review
Guernsey and the Bailiwick islands
The British Channel Island of Guernsey is located in the Bay of St Malo 30 miles from the coast of North West France and 70 miles from Southern England. Guernsey is actually one of a small group of islands known collectively as the ‘Bailiwick of Guernsey’ which is itself a part of the Channel Islands or in French ‘ îles de la Manche’ and occasionally ‘Les îles Anglo-Normandes’.
The Bailiwick of Guernsey includes Alderney, Sark, Breqhou, Herm, Jethou, Lihou and Burhou. Most of the islands (except Guernsey and Alderney) are small with no cars and few inhabitants.
Several books have been written about, or based in, Guernsey especially during the period of the German occupation of the Channel Islands during 1940 and 1945 in the Second World War. The most well known is ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’ which was written by Mary Ann Shaffer who passed away in 2008 and completed by Annie Barrows both of whom come from the United States of America. Mary Ann had visited the island once before writing her novel and her niece visited after the book was completed.
The other much acclaimed book about Guernsey is ‘The Book of Ebenezer Le Page’ by G B Edwards. This has a distinctly more local feel to it and tells the story of a fictional ‘Guernsey-man’ or ‘Guern’ and his life on the island. It’s a fascinating insight into the way of life on Guernsey and is considered by most locals to be the quintessential historical fiction about our island.
Guernsey is known for one especially famous, albeit temporary, resident – Victor Hugo. The author of Toilers of the Sea and Les Miserable’s lived in the island during his exile from France. He purchased a fine house in St Peter Port, high on a hill with views that allowed him to see his home country on a fine day.
For a little over one month in 1883, Pierre August Renoir also visited Guernsey where he painted 15 scenes taken mainly on the rocky south coast bay of Moulin Huet. This sheltered bay with luxuriant foliage lining a narrow descending path through the valley which emerges above its craggy beach is washed with almost mystical light.
Once amongst the granite outcrop of rocks which divide the clear sea into channels, there is an illusion of levels which may only be fully appreciated by standing amongst them at certain states of tide.
The island of Guernsey has beautiful cliff paths along the entire Southern and much of the Eastern coast, the latter of which also includes a splendid pine forest perched above rocky coves.
By contrast the North and much of the Western coasts boast long beaches of clean sand washed by the twice daily tides of the Atlantic Ocean. On the South Western corner of Guernsey is the island of Lihou (my namesake) although strictly speaking it is only an island at high tide as it is connected by a causeway after the ebb. This tiny and remote location was once the home of Benedictine Monks who constructed a priory using the same stone that is found at Mont St Michel in the 12th century.
Herm, to the east of Guernsey is often compared to the exotic islands of the Caribbean. The micro-climate and flat white beaches punctuated by lush greenery make this the perfect get away destination for locals. Shell beach comprises entirely of billions of tiny white shells deposited by the Gulf Stream as is it meandered around Herm’s northern coast.
A few miles further to the South East, the island of Sark can be found with its towering cliffs and rural community. Until recently Sark was the oldest and last remaining feudal government in Europe. The change was brought about by two immensely wealthy brothers who purchased and moved to the adjacent island of Breqhou, where they built an impressive 20th century castle with splendid landscaped gardens high on the cliffs with every conceivable luxury to sustain them and helicopters pads as well as their own private harbour to allow them to commute. The Berkley Brothers media empire includes such well known titles as The Daily Telegraph newspaper. Sark itself is another favourite destination with locals seeking the refuge and tranquillity of a smaller, motor traffic free environment where the mode of transport is either bicycle or horse drawn cart.
All of the Channel Islands including Guernsey and its larger neighbour Jersey are blessed with an abundance of wildlife from Puffins to Seals, and the famous Guernsey Lilly to the golden yellow of the bracken covered cliffs. Walking is very popular and perhaps the best way of all to soak up the atmosphere is from the deck of a sailing boat gliding beneath the cliffs or anchoring for lunch and a swim in one of the many bays.
Guernsey is most famous internationally for the breed of dairy cows which can be found all over the world. Guernsey tomatoes were also very famous until globalisation priced them out of their traditional markets and the famous woollen ‘Guernsey’ jumpers are still popular with those who go to sea or wish to emulate that style.
Guernsey folk have been seafarers throughout the ages and many fought on board Nelson’s ships during the battle of the Nile in addition to many other famous encounters. Admiral Lord James de Saumarez was the most famous of these but locals including family descendents of the Lihou name also fought and some went on to discover places in around the world which bear their names. A section of the famous Great Barrier Reef, along with Port Lihou in Australia, was named after Lieutenant John Lihou RN.
I hope you have found this potted history of Guernsey informative and if you would like to find out more about the island or ask a specific question, please drop me a line and I will be pleased to help if I can.
Author, Rachel’s Shoe