Category Archives: Ellis, Alice Thomas

The Sin-Eater: Alice Thomas Ellis

“In Llanelys the size of the dogs was in inverse proportion to the social status of their owners, except for poodles of course-the hairdresser and the barmaid from The Goat each had one of these. The doctor’s wife had two miniature dachshunds like unwrapped toffees and the solicitor kept a Jack Russell terrier, while the parvenus kept alsatians and labradors and enormous Afghan hounds.”

The Captain, the patriarch of a wealthy Welsh family is dying, and that brings various family members back to the ancestral estate at Llanelys. There’s daughter, Ermyn whose “future was shadowy and obstacle-ridden,” and son Michael as well as his wife, Angela. They gather at the family home with the other resident son, Henry and his Irish-catholic wife, Rose ostensibly to say goodbye to the Captain but also to celebrate the annual cricket match, locals vs. visitors.

In the days just after the war when the Captain had given the Elysian field to the village in a fit of grateful generosity and instituted the annual match  against the visitors, Llanelys had still been smart. Racy cotton-brokers and sober merchants had brought their families for the summer. Academics in shorts had made it their base for hiking, and among the Captain’s opponents had been a few as well-born as himself. But, gradually at first, and then with alarming speed, the people had taken over Llanelys and made it their own. Uncouth accents echoed on the wide sea shore, and the sand, ridged like buckled linoleum, felt the naked tread of inferior feet. The Grand Hotel had struggled to accommodate itself to the new demands, added an American bar, offered bingo evenings, but had finally gone under and was now merely a collection of holiday flatlets.

The annual cricket match, the culmination of the novel, has become a bit of a thorn in the family’s side. Tradition must be upheld, especially in light of the Captain’s imminent death and with Welsh Nationalism actively lurking in the background. This year, the cricket match is a debacle that sinks into an orgy of food, bad behaviour, and illicit sex while the house sheep, named Virginia Woolf, “because of the facial resemblance, which was very marked,” wanders the grounds feasting on Rose’s snapdragons while ruminating with seeming solemn intensity.

The Sin Eater

Author Alice Thomas Ellis often creates a character who is, to put it politely, ‘the cuckoo in the nest.’ A not-so-polite description would be a character who stirs up or draws trouble. In the trilogy, The Summer House, that character is the flamboyant, promiscuous, middle-aged, Lili. In The Sin-Eater, the trouble maker is the practically-minded Rose who manages Llanelys with a smooth, yet slightly disapproving touch. Whereas Lili disrupts life in Croydon, the wily Rose appears to sustain tradition and the established lifestyle with its out of control servants at Llanelys, but in reality, Rose is a subtle saboteur, whose roots were formed in a different class and a different religion.

The Captain, once upon a time, was an irascible force, but now he’s bedbound and given a ceremonial viewing by the family. The seven deadly sins: pride, lust, greed, envy, gluttony, sloth, wrath reside in these characters. Michael and Angela spend the entire trip to Llanelys “quarreling covertly.”

Neither of them were given to open displays of anger. They came from the same background–conventional, incurious, outwardly pacific. But confined spaces and solitude didn’t suit them. Without other people and distraction they regressed and bickered in a sexless, pre-pubertal way.

Yet, Angela, locked in a sexless marriage, falls prey to unbridled, unseemly lust when houseguest, journalist Edward arrives, a man whose “wife tried to kill him a few months ago,” so he escapes to Llanelys, mostly to eat, whenever he can.

‘Does your wife write too?’ she [Angela] asked Edward, hoping to discover by this means the true state of his feelings about his marriage. She didn’t believe Rose’s version.

‘She used to,’ he said rather abruptly. He was unwilling to discuss his marriage in front of Rose since it made her laugh. For some reason he had married a small but powerful and foul-tempered Scot with pretty, vicious features, a great mass of hair and a tendency to give way to intermittent fits of drunken violence. Her life, she was wont to tell him, was centred in her children, of whom there were three, and she didn’t give a damn for anyone else-not anyone, d’ye hear.

‘Did she write for a daily paper?’ needled Angela.

‘For a while.’ said Edward. ‘Did it take you long to get here? The roads were …’

It was too late. ‘She was a cub reporter,’ said Rose joyously. ‘She told me so. A little glossy, fluffy, sweet little cub reporter–till she turned rabid.’

‘She’s very highly strung,’ said Edward, ‘but they’ve just started her on a new pill. They’re very hopeful.’

Angela spoke to him for a while about the strides made by medicine in the field of nervous illness.

Henry looked unusually sombre.

As in The Birds of the Air, the story centres on a supposedly circumspect family gathering which gradually devolves into chaos. Not a great deal happens in this novel–there’s a country party for the local toffs and a cricket match, but the delight here is found in the interactions of the characters who mostly behave very badly indeed while pretending otherwise.

The two main characters–women on opposite sides of the attitude and stability equation–are the very capable Rose, a woman who gets what she wants, and Ermyn, a woman who has no idea what she wants. The daughter of the house, Ermyn, who always feels slightly out of sync with society in general, realizes that “there was something wrong with the world,” watches and draws conclusions. Even though she isn’t Catholic, she daydreams about being a nun, with the “church as a last resort,” and decides to read the bible. It’s through the unworldly Ermyn’s strange disconnected train of thought that we realize how peculiar she is.

Ermyn’s religious yearnings were the result not so much of an urge towards virtue as a fear of evil and unkindness. The Church seemed to her a very good and powerful thing, combining as it did the qualities of rocks and lambs-and kings she thought confusedly, and fish…

While Ermyn’s opinions are confused, fuzzy and rarely spoken, Rose’s opinions are sharp, tart, well-formed, and range from the Catholic church (“the Church has lost its head,”) to Freud (“psycho-analysis is Freudulent conversation,”), a do-gooder who works for the release of prisoners (“the only sins people are able to forgive are those committed against themselves,”) adultery (“a filthy habit […] like using someone else’s toothbrush,”) and even the English:

‘The English don’t have passions,’ said Rose. ‘They have tastes: for porcelain and flagellation, and Georgian porticos–things like that.

As with all Alice Thomas Ellis novels, this is delicate, lace gossamer, conversations loaded with innuendo about sins and sinners from characters whose behaviour is frequently suspect and very slyly funny.

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The Birds of the Air: Alice Thomas Ellis

“Christmas was like a storm washing people to and fro to end up unwanted in each other’s homes.”

Christmas arrives regularly whether we are ready for it or not, and in The Birds of the Air from Alice Thomas Ellis, the celebration comes at an awkward time.  The novel covers a few days in December as three generations of one family converge on the home of the maternal grandmother, Mrs Marsh, a chirpy efficient woman who believes that ‘life must go on’ regardless of family tragedy, and as a widow she’s living proof of her fussy ability to cope.

Unfortunately, Mrs Marsh’s daughter, Mary, isn’t as resilient, and after the death of Mary’s son, Robin, “when it became clear that Mary could no longer live alone,” her mother insists that Mary should move in and be taken care of. While Mary “burned, as remote as a salamander in a blazing exaltation of grief, seeming to draw energy from what had devoured her,” Mrs Marsh’s mourning for her husband is relegated to one specific time of day:

she permitted herself to weep a little each morning in the bathroom before she put on her eyeshadow, but she knew and accepted what apparently Mary did not–that life had to go on. Mary had gone far, but had been wounded and forced to return; and her mother felt the ever so slightly spiteful vindication of the keeper of the cage. The bird had come back, if only to die.

The complacent living sometimes resent prolonged mourning, and that is certainly the case in the Marsh home, and here are the Christmas holidays which are supposed to be a time for celebrating:

she couldn’t suppress a feeling of annoyance with Mary’s Robin for being dead. The event had upset her daughter out of all proportion. Of course it was a dreadful thing to lose your loved ones, but life had to go on. What would happen if everyone collapsed?

Mary, apathetic and depressed, is in a strange twilight zone. She’s still in the world of the living but she longs to join Robin in death; she eats when she’s told to, but mostly she looks out at the garden and watches the birds, alone with her thoughts.

The sky had darkened when Mrs Marsh came back with lunch. She pushed the door with her bottom, balancing a tray covered with two cloths, one under and one over the food, lest germs should leap on it in the few feet between the kitchen and her child.

‘Why don’t you turn the light on?’ she asked, though if it had been on she would have asked why Mary hadn’t called her to do it, or remarked that too much light was bad for the eyes. Life had so treated her in recent years that she couldn’t trust it to itself for a second. A solitary magpie–vain, god-cursed bird, clad in eternal half-mourning-flew forever across her mind’s eye and had to be propitiated or cunningly foiled with constant changing and rearranging. By questioning and vigilance fate might be deflected.

Mrs Marsh is an admirable woman but lacking in the compassion department, and while The Birds of the Air is concerned with mourning, this is also a novel of manners, so complications ensue when Mrs. Marsh’s younger daughter, Barbara, her insufferable professor husband, Sebastian and their two children , Sam and Kate descend on the Marsh household. Sam, an awkward teenager, has just discovered that his father is engaged in a long-standing affair with ‘the Thrush,’ the wife of another professor. Much to Sam’s shame, his father and his mistress are a common long-standing joke amongst his father’s students. Barbara, on tranquilizers, a woman hardwired to cope rather like her mother, also discovers the affair during a Christmas party she is forced to host, but like her mother, she carries on and the family travel to the matriarchal home for Christmas.

the birds of the airWith birds and survival in nature as a central motif, Alice Thomas Ellis follows a few days in the lives of her characters. In the  human world, once we are fed and housed, our greatest challenges are emotional, and here we have a family headed by a woman who’s determined to put a cheery face on things despite glaring evidence to the opposite. The author wisely creates moments of sympathy for Mrs Marsh in the way she realizes she dislikes her son-in-law and the “faint weasel gleam of his smile.”

He made her think of hard roads under a film of rain, shallow and dangerous; of slugs and Nazis and the minister she sometimes met in the terminal ward of the cancer hospital when she was arranging the flowers ….

Mrs Marsh’s seeming lack of empathy is revealed as a fear of emotion and its assault on the respectable middle class security with which she surrounds herself. The perfect family Christmas is exposed as a torturous event with insufferable child, Kate, who obviously inherits her father’s genes, determined to be the ‘good child,’ so when she’s not showing up her rebellious brother, she’s spouting poetry. Meanwhile tensions between Sebastian and Barbara erupt as Mrs Marsh tries desperately to cover up all bad behaviour in front of her neighbours.

In spite of a theme of grief, this is an amazing, beautiful novel replete with sublime observations concerning Mary who manages to somehow, in her ethereal position, remain above some of the worst behaviour of Mrs Marsh’s guests. There are some very funny moments as Mrs Marsh struggles to conceal some of the uglier aspects of life as unexpected guests arrive. This is the fourth rereading of The Birds of the Air, and that should tell you how much I love this book.

She retired to the back room and opened the window. Dry flakes of snow drifted in, as ready and accustomed as doves returning to their familiar cote. She left the window slightly ajar to feel the cold after the heat of the front room, and told herself that alive or dead she wouldn’t undergo another Christmas. The year’s accumulated ill-will seemed always to find expression at this time. Relations who throughout most of the year had the sense to stay apart confined themselves in small spaces to eat and drink too much. And not content with this they felt it necessary to invite people who were lonely because they were unpleasant or boring and no one liked them. They had to be made to participate since it was felt that no one should be alone on this of all days.

For more Alice Thomas Ellis:

The Summer House (made into a film)

The Inn at the Edge of the World

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The Summer House by Alice Thomas Ellis

 “For if it is not possible to be free, perhaps to be hidden is the next best thing.”

The Summer House by British author Alice Thomas Ellis (real name Anna Haycraft) is a story built around the events that take place before an impending wedding. The novel is a trilogy and it’s divided into three parts: The Clothes in the Wardrobe, The Skeleton in the Cupboard, and The Fly in the Ointment. Don’t be put off by the idea of the trilogy as my Penguin edition has a mere 339 pages.

I throughly enjoyed this comedy of manners for its playful yet dark approach to some favourite themes–the gathering of family and friends, the subtle politics of relationships, and various shades of mis-behaviour politely tolerated or ignored. One of the most delightful aspects of The Summer House is the way that everyone manages to silently engage in a unilateral conspiracy to ignore bad behaviour until that behaviour becomes so outrageous, it can no longer be overlooked. The story, with lavish dollops of generous humour,  is told through the eyes of three very different narrators, young bride-to-be, Margaret, the exotic, promiscuous half-Egyptian Lili, and the elderly Mrs Monro.

The novel revolves around what should–under better circumstances–be considered a joyous event. Margaret who lives with her divorced mother, Monica in the well-to do, safe, yet fussily staid part of Croyden, is engaged to marry Syl–a man who lives next door. With his mother. If that gave you pause, you’re heading in the right direction. But there are more problems here than just Syl’s living arrangements. Syl, a lawyer, is old enough to be Margaret’s father, and his previous, innumerable engagements have failed, for vague reasons, to end in marriage. There are hints that Syl leads a double life, but worse than that, Margaret is not in love with Syl. In fact, she loathes him:

I spent as little time with Syl as I possibly could. He didn’t seem to mind. He had few friends but many acquaintances. He played tennis and golf and sometimes went swimming, determined to give no appearance of succumbing to time, to age, I saw that he could not marry a woman of his own generation, for that would double his chances of seeming old. It was sad for me, I thought, that I was the only girl in the world sufficiently stupid to permit herself to be sacrificed to his vanity.

So why is Margaret, a privileged young girl who has no worries or pressures about employment or money marrying a man she loathes? The reason is not immediately apparent, but in Part I: The Clothes in the Wardrobe, Margaret, who is depressed, narrates a tale that reveals an enormous and confusing sense of guilt for an incident in her past. She travelled to Egypt to spend some time with one of her mother’s old school friends, Marie Claire, and something (revealed in time) very bad happened there. Margaret simply no longer cares what happens to her, and she drifts towards her wedding day hoping that something or someone will intervene and save her from Syl.

Part II: The Skeleton in the Cupboard is narrated by Syl’s mother, Mrs Monro. While Mrs Monro hopes to see her son “settled” before she dies, she has serious misgivings about the wedding. Naturally in spite of his faults, she loves her son, and she’s appalled by Margaret’s obvious disinterest in Syl. Mrs Monro, whose main companion after Syl is her overweight elderly Pug, feels powerless to intervene even though she knows that the marriage will be an unmitigated disaster.

Part III: The Fly in the Ointment is narrated by the flamboyant, “vividly alive” middle-aged Lili who arrives with her artist husband in Britain in order to attend the wedding. Lili, who was one of Monica’s best friends in school in Egypt, moves in ostensibly to help with the wedding preparations. Lili, however, has a checkered past, and that leads to confidences from Mrs Monro and desperate hints for help from Margaret.

Here’s Mrs Monro on the unforgettable Lili:

I was disproportionately pleased to see her. She had the effect of an open window on a frosty room, ice in a lukewarm drink, wind on a sullen sea, She was free of the shaming curbs of expedient morality. She would never smell of milk, or the urine of infants, or laundry-steam rising from linen indiscriminately washed. She wasn’t a mother, and if she was a wife, she was, by conventional standards, a gloriously bad one.

Here Mrs Monro discusses memory and aging:

Looking in the mirror, I could see no trace of the girl whose life I had been reliving. Old age seemed to me not so much a natural progression as a disguise: a suit of unsuitable clothes, ill-fitting and inappropriate.

As the wedding draws near, the attempts to cover Margaret’s joylessness, dread, and sense of impending doom become harder and harder to conceal, and there’s an atmosphere of increasing almost intolerable pressure. Margaret’s mother is determined to make Margaret see it through as she views marriage as some sort of social and moral obstacle course fraught with martyrdom and duty.

Author Alice Thomas Ellis competently creates a wonderful tale that steers a course between some characters who realise things are terribly wrong, other characters who are determined to ignore the warning signs, and finally a few who are oblivious to things going on right under their noses.

It’s a tribute to the skill of the author that she decides to slice the tale into three narratives–a device which allows us to see different facets of the characters involved in the drama. Through Margaret’s eyes, old Mrs Monro is boring and doddery, but then we get Mrs Monro’s narration and see that she’s an extremely sympathetic character, and Syl may be unpleasant and vain, but he is a good son. Lili’s robust narrative reveals a woman who shares her doubts only with her reflection while she plays a close, duplicitous hand with everyone else. While a great deal of the book’s focus is on the various misdeeds of men (adultery &  immaturity), the women are not without their share of faults. There’s the marvellously amoral and predatory Lili–a woman who’ll sleep with a gallery director to seal the promise of a show, but there’s also the pathologically prim Monica–a woman who’d drive any spouse to insanity. Lili secretly calls Monica a “grabber,” a woman who’s grabbed so much of her ex-husband’s assets that he, his dull new wife and their two pale “dressed up dead chicken” children live in straitened circumstances. Some of the most delightfully wicked passages concern domestic paragon Monica’s gloating attitude and “angelic forbearance”  towards her ex’s miserable second marriage and the questionable talents of his hopeless second wife.

She had been outraged when her husband left her for another woman, had addressed him with religious vehemence and spoken of hell, but as time passed she had realized that life was very much more pleasant without him, that he was generous with money, and so she had, not forgiven, but ceased to revile him; and I know she found grim amusement in my stepmother’s harassed countenance and the irritating ways of her two small children. They would come sometimes for my birthday, or at Christmas, and my mother, whose material circumstances were very much more comfortable than those of my father and his new family, would patronize them and condole with my stepmother on my father’s drinking habits and the undisciplined weeping of her little boy. The girl bade fair to be pretty but fortunately was extremely dim.

For anyone interested, The Summer House was made into a highly entertaining film starring Jeanne Moreau, Julie Walters, and Joan Plowright.

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The Inn at the Edge of the World by Alice Thomas Ellis

“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.

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