Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Mad Men - The First Series

Anyone still watching? I only ask because a few friends have given up and I'm a little surprised I'm sticking with it at times. The dearth of quality television may have something to do with it, but also the nagging thought that the series may at some point live up to its potential. The heavy handed signposting continues (It's the 60's you know) not to mention the smoking in every scene but it's undeniably well made with lighting and cinematography of the highest order. The script has its moments and the acting too but why isn't it quite satisfying?

I quite like Jon Hamm as Don Draper but he's no James Gandolfini. It's not a fair comparison obviously but there was always a vulnerability to Tony Soprano that meant no matter how violent or extreme his actions you still cared what happened to him. What a character. Draper on the other hand is a fiction, a 'whore-child' to begin with who uses the accident of war to assume a new identity, his life then carefully constructed in line with the American Dream. No wonder he's so good at knowing what people want. But to keep his fiction going he's not allowed to show much in the way of emotion, or maybe that's a repressed Sixties thing too. Barely a flicker as he heard of his brother's suicide, not much even in the final shot as he returned to an empty home. I like the conceit of a man who lies for a living leading a life which is itself a lie but I'm hoping it's leading somewhere.

It's Don's wife Betty that I've become interested in (don't be smutty). Through the series she has lost her naivety, whether through observing the lives of others or having her eyes opened to her own. There was something so touching about the way she reached out her hand to Glen (the little boy who had walked in on her on the toilet earlier in the series) in the last episode and admitted, as she hadn't to anyone else, that she was 'so sad'. 'Please tell me I'll be okay', she asked, but how could he? She seems to have developed more than any other character. Having discovered that Don receives reports on her therapy sessions she used last night's to send him a message; that she knows of his infidelity and doesn't like it. Clever girl.

In fact with the men being so obnoxious and hateful it was the female characters in general that held my attention. Peggy Olsen promised so much at the start but the whole gosh Peggy's put on some weight and is often feeling queasy in the morning story reached it's obvious conclusion with ooh I'm getting some stomach pains. Difficult to take very seriously. The pregnancy makeup was pretty good though. Joan Holloway kept up her impressive pout throughout and even tugged on the heartstrings a little with a simple kiss when Roger Sterling returned to work after his heart attack.

I'd like to take a moment to praise Rich Sommer who plays Harry Crane. With those heavy black specs and the lollipop he's been a quiet figure cracking jokes every now and then and content with the wife at home but he suddenly developed after his fling at the election night party. The sight of him in his vest and underpants, sleeping in the office after being kicked out by his wife was suitably tragic. More for him please in series two and more for everyone by which I mean there's only so much to enjoy in watching the birth of famous ad campaigns of the past. It has to be about the characters if it's to last, if not; how many will still be tuning in by the end of the next series?


Tuesday, 27 May 2008

It's all done with mirrors

Mobius Dick
by Andrew Crumey

Near the beginning of this dizzying novel Crumey's hero (one of them) has a conversation with a lecturer about coincidences linking various scientists, artists and philosophers. He then knowingly remarks 'No doubt some imaginative novelist could conceive a logical scheme linking everything: Hoffmann, Schumann, Schrödinger, Mann.' Crumey of course then proceeds to do just that, his scheme not so much logical as puckishly magical, combining different worlds, universes and questioning the nature of reality itself. After reading it I found myself, like the Möbius strip itself, starting at the beginning again but with a twist, better placed this time to navigate my way around Crumey's ambitious structure.

We can use as a template a book which appears within this novel several times: The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr by E T A Hoffman. The composer Johannes Kreisler writes his autobiography but the pages are mistakenly mixed up with the musings of his cat, the pages indeterminately mixed up so that the reader will struggle to know which is which and what is real. Similarly this novel is made up of three strands; the stories of John Ringer, Harry Dick and the writings of Heinrich Behring (who, to add another level to the construct, is writing in Crumey's imagined British Democratic Republic - the result of an alternative ending to the Second World War involving Nazi occupation and a Socialist Republic - which made an appearance in Crumey's recent Sputnik Caledonia) Given that the story deals with the possibility of multiple universes, 'universal mind' and has at least one character who makes an appearance in all three strands this is a beguiling, tour de force of plotting, coincidence and mirrored structure. That Crumey handles all this with such confidence is what makes it such a rewarding read.

The physicist John Ringer receives a text message, 'Call me: H', which he supposes is from his old lover, Helen. Along with the conversation I mentioned above it sets him to thinking of different ways their relationship could have played out, alternate realities if you like, a theme which will return again and again. In Scotland he is due to deliver a talk about the development of the 'vacuum array' a new source of power or super computer capable of wonders but also carrying the danger that it could destroy the universe itself. I'm making it sound a bit trite but in Crumey's hands (he, a theoretical physicist) it is absolutely convincing. Whilst there he meets a woman whom he is sure is Helen but who insists her name is Laura.

Elsewhere a man wakes up in a hospital bed after being knocked down by a car. He is disoriented and Dr Blake informs him he could be suffering from AMD. This 'collection of symptoms' is like a medical catch-22, you may think that when all illnesses have been ruled out you'd be well, but you're not; you have AMD. There are rumours about what may be causing it, the latest mobile phones, perhaps something within the hospital itself. There's even a suggestion from fellow patient Clara that Dr Blake may be conducting an experiment of her own. Crumey brilliant creates the confusion of the amnesiac. Time doesn't seem to flow as it should; a stack of paper left by a writing therapist is suddenly filled with his writing, though he doesn't remember doing it. And the main character in his story: John Ringer.

Add to this the writings of Heinrich Behring; one detailing the visit of Bettina Von Armin to an asylum to visit the composer Robert Schumann, losing his mind, producing page after page of atonal music and haunted by the visits of a spirit woman. In the next we are with Schrödinger as he visits a tuberculosis clinic in the Alps where Dr Hinze is developing his own theories of 'transcendental idealism'. History repeats itself, meaning that past and future can interact, both influencing the other. There is a dark side to the therapies he administers to one patient, Clara, also known as The Invisible Girl and slowly we, the reader, begin to see that she under either of these names or Laura or Helen is the thread which joins these disparate elements.

It is impossible to do justice to the intricacies of the plot, the wide sweep of cultural influences and historical characters, the thrill of having everything you take for granted questioned by a world in which all eventualities are possible (and maybe even at the same time) ; Schrödinger's cat can be both alive and dead even when we open the box. Towards the end of the novel as Crumey goes into technological thriller mode it is like your brain being subjected to ten rounds with Tyson except that rather than biting your ear he's whispering quantum theory into it. That it all holds together at all is a miracle and Crumey saves his best trick for last with an ending which should send you, as it did me, straight back to the beginning again. Stimulating, accessible and above all original I only wish I had ignored a snippy review I read when it was first published and enjoyed the ride earlier.


Friday, 23 May 2008


Just in case anyone was wondering. I haven't been kidnapped and I'm not reading a ridiculously huge book. But my computer has absolutley crashed and died and so I'm in the process of rebuilding. Worry not, I shall return, stronger than before and with a cracking review to boot. There, that's whetted your appetite hasn't it?

(By the way the picture above is merely illustrative)


Monday, 12 May 2008

daylight robbery

The Book Thief
by Markus Zusak

I know it's only snobbishness but I find myself resisting books that have the word bestseller slapped on the cover, especially 'International bestseller'. If I haven't discovered a book like that for myself I'm very resistant to joining the throng. This particular novel also seems to have been designed to sell well. Central character who is a child; check. Storyline with books having prominence; check. The Holocaust; check. Something quirky (this book is narrated by Death); check. And kerrching! Let the money flow in. I know this is very cynical and more importantly you could design a book with all these elements and it still be a load of rubbish if you can't write well, but these are the reasons I hadn't even thought of picking this book up. But then it was put into my hand. So I read it.

It's long. Almost 600 pages. Admittedly it's not really as long as that sounds as there are a few pictures and the typography means that hardly any pages are simple blocks of text. This is mainly because Death frequently interrupts his narrative with 'quirky' observations or headings telling us what is going to happen next or what's really going on in a character's head. A few times this is entertaining but after a while it begins to grate and after a few hundred pages it's just irritating. It's a really lazy way of putting the story across, a bit like relying on a narrator in a stage play to explain what's going on (and before you complain, yes, I know Shakespeare did it). For much of the book it felt like I was reading a book for children (In some countries it has been marketed as just that); having everything explained is supposed to come across as illustrative of the omnipotence of Death I guess but it felt a little patronising to be honest. Here for example is how Death sums up his work during the battle of Stalingrad ferrying between the Germans and Russians collecting the souls of 'disassembled men':

'It was no ski trip, I can tell you.'

To be greeted by a line like this after persisting for 500 pages made me want to throw the book at the wall. It's not funny, it's not clever, and no one is the slightest bit amused. Death could have provided an amazing insight into humanity (or the lack of it given the wartime setting) but instead delivers adolescent bon mots to show how tiresome it is being him. Tiresome indeed. At one point we are even treated to dictionary quotations to explain the meaning of emblematic words.

It's a shame because there are moments were Zusak writes incredibly well. The plot revolves around Liesel, a young girl fostered by Hans and Rosa Hubermann, and the relationships she makes with them, a Jew named Max (whom they hide in their cellar) and her best friend Rudy. Haunted by the death of her younger brother on the train ride to the Hubermanns Liesel is comforted each night by Hans who reads her the book she stole at her brothers burial, the first of many which will give her the eponymous title. When they finally finish The Gravedigger's Handbook early one morning,

'It was one of those moments of perfect tiredness, of having conquered not only the work at hand, but the night who had blocked the way.'

A feeling familiar to anyone who loves reading and has been compelled to continue into the night. Her relationship with Max is well written and there is great economy to the way Zusak describes the practicalities of harbouring a Jew in Germany at this time.

'Imagine smiling after a slap in the face. Then think of doing it 24 hours a day.That was the business of hiding a Jew.'

Death is quite up front about the toll he will exact during the course of this story but there's plenty of misdirection along the way. The book is overwritten, not nearly as clever as it thinks it is and provides little original insight into the plight of German citizens during the war. Near the end we read quotes from the book Liesel herself writes, a tantalising glimpse of what this novel could have been without Death as our guide. Let me offer him a dictionary definition of my own: Disappoint, verb - to fail to meet the expectation or hope of, frustrate.

Irmgard Keun's Child Of All Nations, written before the outbreak of war, provides a far more insightful, entertaining and succint version of events.


Saturday, 10 May 2008

Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes

Fleet Foxes - Ragged Wood

In a recent interview Robin Peknold, lead singer and songwriter of Fleet Foxes said 'Four people singing is just as close as you can get musically, because you're all standing next to each other and you're all just an interval away. It just reminds me of family.' With these close harmonies Fleet Foxes made quite an impression at the South By Southwest Festival combining choral singing with folk, gospel, rock and pop to awesome effect. And after the glorious Sun Giant EP the sun has risen again on the debut album from the Seattle quintet.

Opener Sun It Rises begins with a bluesy sounding acapella before an acoustic guitar brings in a far more West Coast sound. A lovely beginning. White Winter Hymnal is an amazing track, the opening line repeated like a round as more voices join in to layer the harmonies on top of one another. The track builds before breaking down to just the voices again at the end. Simple but brilliant. Frequent references to the landscape and wildlife give the album a pastoral folksy feel typified by tracks like Meadowlarks and Blue Ridge Mountains. Ragged Wood has that country feel before quietening and allowing the voices to take control, making it two tracks in one really. Robin Peknold sings alone on Tiger Mountain Peasant Song to great effect, sounding like an ancient balladeer; music both classical and contemporary. He Doesn't Know Why is a great pop song. Your Protector sounds like it could come from Civil War era America and with its flutes reminded me for some reason of Simon and Garfunkel. The album finishes with Oliver James, which tells the sad tale of a drowning. ' On the kitchen table that your grandfather did make/You in your delicate way will slowly clean his face/And you will remember when you rehearsed the actions of/An innocent and anxious mother full of anxious love'. Beautiful.

It isn't a perfect album. The simple Quiet Houses sounds like it might be a good vocal warmup for the band before a gig and the almost instrumental Heard Them Stirring is pretty but a bit of a filler. But the rest of the album is strong, undeniably beautiful and will make a great soundtrack for quiet summer evenings. To steal a line of Peknold's this is 'The sound of ancient voices ringing soft upon your ear'.

After that SXSW success Fleet Foxes are well worth seeing live I reckon. Their UK and Ireland dates are as follows:

29th May - SHHHH, London
9th June - AUDIO, Brighton
10th June - LOUISIANA, Bristol
11th June - ULU, London
12th June - THE SOCIAL, Nottingham
14th June - WHELANS, Dublin
15th June - BRUDNELL SOCIAL, Leeds
16th June - SHHH, London
17th June - ROADHOUSE, Manchester
18th June - ABC, Glasgow


Friday, 9 May 2008

Anywhere I Lay My Head - Scarlett Johansson

Scarlett Johansson - Falling Down

When I was a wee lad my Uncle, who worked abroad and so was often coming home with curiosities, stuck a tape on our stereo (ah, tapes). It was the Tom Waits album Blue Valentine which opens with a lushly orchestrated version of Somewhere from the musical West Side Story. When that unmistakable lisping growl intoned the first line 'There's a place for usssssss' I burst out laughing. Surely this was a joke. Quite a few years later I am a great admirer of Tom Waits, one of the preeminent songwriters and a man who can tell a story in song like no other.

Maybe this is why Hollywood starlet Scarlett Johansson has chosen to perform an album of Waits cover versions as her musical debut (apart from a version of Summertime which I heard a while back). Maybe she felt that as an actress she could bring her skills to song interpretation. She's even enlisted backing vocals from showbiz chum David Bowie and top production values from Dave Sitek. There's just one problem with that. Actually there's more than one problem with this album.

It opens with Fawn, an instrumental which begins with an organ before big horns come in; it's a fanfare of a start but we're waiting for the voice. Town With No Cheer has an extended intro before slow keyboards reminiscent of Twin Peaks bring in Scarlett's entrance. But wait; is that her? Is that a her, it sounds like a him. I'm experiencing that same shock again. She sounds flat. Why have they set the song too low even for her alto voice? Oh dear, not good, and no amount of over production can hide it (and they've tried). Falling Down has more wall of sound production but there's that voice again. She is flat. I know Nico made a career out of it but that doesn't mean we'll accept it another time. Bowie makes his first appearance, just, he's very low in the mix. The title track begins with a drum machine from a Bontempi organ by the sounds of things and then, a little clearer this time, Scarlett struggling again. Bowie comes to help her again on Fannin' Street by warbling like he's in pain or having a nightmare, perhaps he was. Song For Jo is the only original track on the album and its, well, not bad just a bit dull really.

The production is impressive, in fact in many ways this is Sitek's album especially as Scarlett's voice is often only just audible under the booming soundscape. There are hints of the Cocteau Twins, and even a New Order style I Don't Want To Grow Up but it doesn't matter how hard he tries if you keep smirking or wincing at the vocal. I could be wrong, I was very wrong about Tom Waits, perhaps this album is destined to be a classic. But I don't think so.

Tom Waits - Falling Down


Thursday, 8 May 2008

loose lips sink ships

Darkness Falls From The Air
by Nigel Balchin

I'm always up for a 'lost classic' or a book which deserves a wider audience. The author Patrick McGrath in a recent interview on the Asylum site mentioned this wartime novel by Nigel Balchin who enjoyed great critical and comercial success in his day (and also incidentally penned the terms boffin and backroom boy). McGrath mentioned that it has the most perfect ending. I can't tell you how many times the ending of a novel has left me feeling let down, so naturally I couldn't wait.

I felt unseated almost immediately by the tone which was far less gritty Brits during the Blitz and more Brits thinking it's damned inconvenient now getting to the Ritz. There's lots of talk of getting tight, talking bunkum and people being a pip. But this isn't upper class guff, Balchin's novel is located firmly in the middle classes (with their unique withering take on everything, even war) with solid civil servant Bill Sarrat at the centre. Bill is frustrated at work where the dithering of colleagues and especially superiors is moving from Yes Minister territory into a far more serious area which he feels could decide whether the war is won or lost. He faces a different battle at home where his wife, Marcia, is having an affair with which Sarrat is being terribly accommodating, especially when, or perhaps because he thinks her lover Stephen is 'a perfect specimen of a spoilt child grown up'. Taking the moral high ground he thinks it is up to Marcia to decide how and when and even if to end her affair but with her caring nature she finds it almost impossible to resist those very demonstrations of childish emotion which Stephen is so keen on; the tears, the dramatic gesture, the talk of suicide. This leads to a building intensity to Bill's confrontations with his wife and after one particular scene where he is driven to slap her hard across the face and then breaks down we have this thoroughly English conclusion: '..."But anyhow I must go to the office now. It's damned late." It was well after nine.'

Balchin's descriptions of London under the Blitz aren't what I expected either. The book was actually written whilst the bombs fell and shows events from a unique humourous perspective.

They had hauled down a barrage balloon. It was a bit deflated and the tail fins were flopping down. End on, the whole thing looked exactly like an elephant in a vile temper flapping its ears. I remembered that the people who ran barrage balloons were said to get very fond of their own balloon. You could see that they would. This particular one had a lot of personality.

Or this exchange after an incendiary bomb has fallen and been quickly doused by men with sandbags.

'It was a feeble little bomb, wasn't it?'
'It didn't get much of a chance,' I said
'No. I felt quite sorry for it in a way.'

The civil service plotline isn't hugely engaging and the tone of the rest of the novel is confusing to say the least. It felt at times more like pastiche than a novel being written at the time. It isn't until nearer the end that Balchin uses his obvious skill to create a far more dangerous sounding London, one familiar to anyone who has lived there through any form of terror there in the last 60 years. I won't say too much of the ending of which McGrath is so impressed and we'll ignore the idea of a perfect conclusion but Balchin certainly wields his authority. This tale of life during wartime has its moments but its alienating tone makes it difficult to care too much about anyone.


Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Sun Giant EP - Fleet Foxes

Fleet Foxes - Mykonos

How can you ignore a five star rave review? I can't, but I am nearly always disappointed. People tend to rave about things which are very particular to them, who knows what sets it off; something very personal usually which doesn't quite click with you. Also, if I had a pound for every glowing music review which mentions Brian Wilson or The Beach Boys I'd be, well, able to finance these deflating musical forays.

But this five track EP from Seattle five piece Fleet Foxes is worth everyone of those five stars (and a little alliteration too). The title track opens with close-set acapella harmonies which echo as if they're being sung in a church and there is something religious about the melody too. Just voices singing but there is a grandeur to the music as they sing ' What a life I lead when the sun breaks free/As a giant torn from the clouds'. There's accompaniment and a much bigger sound to Drops In The River and English House continues with the guitars and ukulele underpinning more fantastic harmonies. The sun comes out again on the mournful sounding Mykonos, 'And you will go to Mykonos/With a vision of a gentle coast/And a sun to maybe dissipate/Shadows of the mess you made.' Halfway through it changes tack with more choral vocals which reach out to lead the track somewhere else. It's just lead vocalist Robin Pecknold and guitar on the last track Innocent Son and it's a voice with surprising range even on this short selection. There are inevitable comparisons to Crosby, Stills and Nash, The Beach Boys and some more recent alt country outfits but I'll leave it to the band themselves to describe what they do: "We'd call this stuff baroque harmonic pop jams". Well, there you go. An album will follow in June. Can't wait.


Sunday, 4 May 2008

running scared

Child Of All Nations
by Irmgard Keun

Kully is a nine year old girl growing up in 1930's Europe. Along with her father and mother the family move from country to country as exiles because;

...we can't return to Germany, because then the government would lock us up, ever since my father told the French newspapers and other newspapers, and he even wrote it in a book, about how much he hates the government.

Kully's narrative voice (and Michael Hoffman's excellent translation) moves this novel along at quite a pace. As you can see it is a voice of innocence and experience at the same time. Not only is she a child living in dangerous times but her parents a far from model. Her father in particular is not to be relied upon. A writer constantly in search of the next publisher, borrowing money from all and sundry and dragging his wife and daughter around to leave as surety when he needs to borrow more. Kully remembers vividly a time when he almost forget to come back for her, an episode which captures strikingly the trust a child places in their parents. And so often in this story Kully and her mother are left waiting, suffering the indignity of the changing attitudes of hotel staff as telegrams and letters keep them posted on the progress of earning enough to pay the hotel bill.

A young narrator is a risk but Keun hits just the right note, avoiding sentimentality and often cutting to the heart of the matter. She has a unique way of looking at the adult world.

A border has nowhere for you to set your foot. It's a drama that happens in the middle of a train, with help from actors who are called border guards.

She is also very funny, her unique take on things often throwing up hilarious observations.

She ordered bouillabaisse, which is a kind of soup that's made out of the Mediterranean; all the creatures in the Mediterranean float around it in a hard-to-identify way, and some of them of course are poisonous. When people have had enough of life, they can choose to die either by mushrooms or bouillabaisse, but in either case I think they have to order it specially from the hotel kitchen.

Keun's novel was first published in 1938, before war broke out and certainly before the true scale of Nazi atrocities would be known. It is amazing therefore with the benefit of hindsight to see the prescience of this novel. Not so much in foretelling the scale of destruction but in showing with an observer's eye the impact of diaspora on any community. What do you call home if it isn't a place and it isn't your family?

Michael Hoffman's excellent afterword explains a little more about Keun, who was the partner of Joseph Roth in the last years of his life (and may have provided inspiration for the character of Kully's father), as well as correctly identifying the weakness of the ending. As soon as Kully boards the boat to America there is a dissipation of tension from which the novel never quite recovers. It's charting of their nomadic existence in Europe is finely observed however and makes a compelling case for Keun to emerge from the shadow of her partner and hopefully for more of her work to become available in English.


Thursday, 1 May 2008

Baise mon tchou!

The Book of Ebenezer Le Page
by G B Edwards

Sometimes the story behind a novel serves not only to intrigue but to feedback and increase the magic of the work itself. There is a particular poignancy to novels published posthumously which go on to achieve great success, such as A Confederacy of Dunces, that leaves us wondering what else might have been. Gerald Basil Edwards was a civil servant for most of his life and died at the age of 77 living as a virtual recluse in Dorset. Near the end of his life he had been befriended by Edward Chaney who encouraged him to complete a novel he was working on (part of a projected trilogy of works set on his home isle of Guernsey). Unfortunately for us he only completed the first (burning what remained) but we are lucky that Hamish Hamilton published it originally and that New York Review of Books Classics have reprinted a new edition. It is a masterpiece of character fiction, a definitive novel about Guernsey and a particular time and a must read for any self respecting reader.

Ebenezer Le Page is a Guernsey man, a donkey, as the Jersey islanders would call him and as stubborn as that animal in many ways. His is an uncompromising voice and from the first page it is a voice which is utterly convincing. Speaking in the Anglo-French patois of the island the novel comes to us from three notebooks he has purchased from the local post office and which he has filled with his life. Edwards achievement is total; as you read you have to remind yourself that the notebooks aren't real, he isn't actually writing this in his home at Les Moulins. Take this paragraph:

I thought a lot of myself when I was a young chap. I wasn't bad looking for a Guernsey boy. I was dark with a round museau of a face and thick lips, and a pug nose and high cheekbones and deep-set brown eyes and a bush of black hair. I haven't got much of that black hair left now, and what there is of it is white. I've still got got enough teeth to eat with and I can hear all right and have never had to put spectacles on my nose, though I have to look through a magnifying glass to read the Births, Deaths and Marriages in the Press, and I write big in this book so as to be able to see what I'm saying. I didn't grow very tall and wished I was taller: but I had broad shoulders and a good chest which I used to go round with stuck out like a pigeon. I was given fine strong legs, but they was a trifle bandy even then, and have got bandier and bandier the older I've got. I wish now I could straighten them out a bit; but I can still get along on them all right. With a stick.

What this shows is how skillfully Edwards describes to us not only the man now but the man back then too and crucially how the physical deterioration has done nothing to dim the spirit. The chest stuck out like a pigeon, the pride in not needing spectacles, the admission to needing to write big in his book (the kind of detail that makes the book real) and that hilarious punchline to finish it off. In spite of his cantankerous nature Ebenezer provokes many laughs, not always intentionally.

I said the book he ought to read is Robinson Crusoe. It is a good book. It show how if you go gallivanting all over the world instead of stopping at home where you belong, you only land yourself with a load of trouble. Raymond couldn't stop laughing when I said that. I don't know for why.

No man is an island, but if ever a man could be seen to represent one it is Ebenezer. Having left its shores only once to play in the football match against Jersey, and lived through two World Wars, an island occupation, the arrival of the motor car and a visit from the King he is Guernsey, an embodiment of the way things were. When Dudley Waine ('with an "e"') comes to interview him as part of his research into the island he calls Ebenezer an anachronism.

'Say that word again', I said. He said it. I said 'Spell it.' He spelt it. 'Now what do it mean please?' I said. 'Out of its due time,' he said, 'in your case, belonging to a bygone age.' 'I thought you was interested in old things,' I said. 'So I am, so I am,' he said. 'I find you immensely interesting. As an object of study.' He was looking at me through his thick round spectacles, as if I was something come out of a hole in the ground. For a minute, I felt so small...but I wasn't going to give in to goggle-eyes, even if he did know everything. After all, he wasn't so wonderful himself. 'Baise mon tchou!' I said.

The framing device for the novel is Ebenezer's legacy. With no immediate family but half the island 'cousins and the cousins of my cousins' he has to decide who to leave his stash of golden sovereigns to. This allows him to introduce us to several of the island's characters. Important amongst these are his old pal Jim Mahy, his cousin Raymond Martell and the woman of his life Liza Queripel. His friendship with Jim is written with beautiful frankness; their closeness typified by a night they spend marooned on the isle of Lihou huddling together for warmth. Ebenezer knows that he can tell Jim anything and 'he would have liked me just the same.' His relationship with his cousin Raymond is far more complicated, but then so is Raymond. His struggles with faith and love make his life a misery and there is real pain in Ebenezer's inability to help him. It is a tempestuous relationship he enjoys, or endures, with Liza Queripel. From their flirtatious youth to the angry exchanges later in life the two of them are more like sparring partners than lovers but it is a relationship that endures whilst others are tragically ended; history takes its toll on a life as long as Ebenezer's. At the centre always is the man himself;

I doubt everything I hear, even if I say it myself; and, after the things I have been through and seen happen to other people on this island and known to have happened in the world, I sometimes wonder about the existence of God: but I know I am Ebenezer Le Page.

There is another important character of course: Guernsey itself. My copy of the book included a map of the island but Edwards writes with such knowledge that you don't need it. Not so much sketching as painting the landscape, it is a portrait filled with great affection. Edwards himself was unable to return to Guernsey when his father remarried and left their home to his new family so it is no wonder that legacy plays such an important role in his novel. Some have criticised the novel for its happy ending but it is hard to begrudge Ebenezer his resolution; finding a worthy recipient of not only his stash but the three notebooks, bought for 18/6, which make up the book of Ebenezer Le Page. As a final quotation (I could happily copy out vast chunks) I'll leave you with another example of Edwards' love for Guernsey.

...we sat and watched the big sun sink lower and lower until there was only a tip showing; when suddenly, it dipped under, and was gone! Then it happened. I don't know what. The great rocks was not rocks, nor the sea sea, yet they was real as real; and the clouds was gates of glory, and every way I turned my eyes the view was waves of joy and golden light. 'God, that's magnificent!' said Neville. I had no words but Raymond's. 'It is a glimpse of the world as God made it,' I said, 'on the first evening of the first day.' He gave me a funny look. 'I'd love to paint it!' he said. 'It can never be painted,' I said.

Don't be so sure. In his unique work G B Edwards has done exactly that.


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