“Life is only, by definition, a use of time.”
The Inn at the Edge of the World by Alice Thomas Ellis is a ghost story, so if you don’t like ghost stories stop right here.
I discovered Alice Thomas Ellis a few years ago thanks to the now sadly defunct mail-order book catalogue, A Common Reader. You could always count on this small catalogue to be packed full of eclectic choices, and I found a number of good authors I’d never heard of before. Alice Thomas Ellis was one of those authors. I haven’t read everything by Ellis, but I’ve liked everything I’ve read. I’ve read The Inn at the Edge of the World three or four times, and since the novel is set in the Xmas season, this seemed like a good time for a reread.
The book begins with disgruntled Hebrides island inn-keeper, Eric deciding to place an advert in a handful of British newspapers and magazines. The advert is targeted towards the lonely few who can’t stand the idea of a traditional Xmas while the thought of a trip to an island in the Hebrides to avoid or escape the festivities sounds like a viable alternative. Eric plans the ad while simultaneously wondering what it would be like to murder his difficult wife, Mabel. Eric bought the inn primarily to remove his wife from the wild influence of her many friends, but the idea has backfired badly. Mabel resents the island, resents the inn and resents Eric for bringing her there. In addition, the inn is not much of a viable business; there’s a rival pub on the island that has more drinking traffic, and Eric has to acknowledge that he’s bought a dying business for a wife who can’t wait to escape to the mainland.
Contrary to Mabel’s skepticism that anyone would actually pay to spend Christmas at the inn, five people arrive. They are a diverse bunch–all lonely people who are attempting to escape the emptiness of their lives:
Jessica is a young actress with a series of disappointing relationships in her past. She’s so busy playing the part of other lives that she finds she’s not really sure who she is and admits:
I feel most myself when I’m being someone else
Harry is a lonely retired army man whose article on General Gordon threatens to turn into a book. Harry realises that all the guests are in “the throes of disappointment,” and that they’d believed their lives would have more meaning or be more exciting.
Jon is a handsome, but empty, bit-part actor who makes the trip to the island to get closer to Jessica.
Ronald is a self-centered, psychiatrist whose wife has fled (that brings the novel’s count to two runaway wives). Ronald is struggling with the complexities of the toaster amongst other things, and a holiday (with meals provided) solves some problems for him.
Anita is a middle-aged woman who works in a menial position in a large shop. Going to the island for Xmas promises a sense of the exotic.
Some of the things that occur are rather predictable. Anita, for example, decides that Ronald only needs a good woman to set him straight, and she begins mother-henning him at mealtimes. Ronald who’s so used to being catered to doesn’t spend time wondering just what Anita’s intentions are; he simply expects a maid/personal assistant/cook/cleaner/general dogsbody. Why break a lifelong habit?
Another predictable element is Jon’s focus on Jessica, but it’s here that things begin to lose their predictability, and while author Alice Thomas Ellis introduces humour she also introduces the supernatural. Yes, strange things are afoot on this mysterious island, and yet only some people seem to notice. But perhaps that’s how it always happens.
While the novel’s main plot follows the growing relationships between the inn guests, another thread explores Eric’s frustrations with his tepid business, his ungrateful guests, his unmanageable wife, and his annoying customers. Eric is particularly annoyed by two “incomers”: the Professor (of dentistry) and Mrs. H, the local wanton wife whose husband is safely stowed stirring a pot over a hot oven while Mrs. H picks up men in her ample free time. Here’s Eric at work behind the bar when the professor arrives–a man whose two chief faults (according to Eric), are his out-of-control libido and his underlying cheap nature:
‘Oh, hallo Professor,’ he said without enthusiasm. It was only one of those incomers who had bought a house on the island for the purposes of holidaying there: a mean man in Eric’s view, who drank alcohol-free lager with lime and not much of that. There was a girl with him wearing the guarded, faintly sulky air of a girl who is not too stupid to know that she is the latest in a series of similar girls. Eric had noticed, over the months, that several incomers had bought houses on the island apparently for the sole purpose of conducting clandestine affairs. The professor kept an old duffel coat which he made all his women wear, probably so he would recognize them if his memory slipped.
Then here’s Eric & Mrs H:
The female of the species. While her husband was away on business she brought men with her to her white house on the hill. ‘How’s Graham?’ he inquired nastily, for he happened to remember that her husband was called John.
‘He’s fine,’ she said without turning a hair.
No shame, thought Eric. None of them had any shame. They treated the island like a brothel. He looked back to the time when he had pictured his bar full of local characters gathered for the edification and amusement of the gently bred guests who had just unpacked their pigskin suitcases in the charming ambience of their bedrooms before coming down, talking animatedly among themselves, to drink a lot of expensive liquor before dining, while his wife chirruped and shone like a budgerigar in crisp cottons, scent and fresh lipstick. His ideas of marriage and the typical hostelry were hopelessly out of date. Mrs H. ordered a mineral water with ice and a slice of lemon.
Most of the characters in The Inn at the Edge of the World have fantasies about how life should be. Eric, for example, bought the inn on an unspecified island in the Hebrides. While the setting may seem romantic at first, only an idealist, an escapee or a seeker would buy a business in this location. As it turns out all of the characters are seeking something–a solution to the problems in their lives, and they have a difficult time aligning their expectations with reality, and yet what is reality? Alice Thomas Ellis plays with this question bringing in strong elements of the supernatural–some of the inn’s guests are open to the unexplainable, while the dull, the boring are passed by.
This is not a terribly complicated tale, and yet it has a definite charm. To a great extent the novel is about coming to terms with life–disappointments, losses, and shattered illusions. Supernatural elements are an integral part of the story, and somehow the combination of the unexplainable juxtaposed with the everyday humdrum problems of life created a perfect combination. The setting adds to the story’s mystery and reminds me of the John Sayles film: The Secret of Roan Inish.