Ronald was staring with wild incomprehension at the toaster, which was stubbornly refusing to relinquish the toast. This sentence, from British writer Alice Thomas Ellis’ 1990 novel, The Inn at the Edge of the World , may well win my personal award for Best-Ever Pithy Character Sketch. In this one sentence, everything a reader needs to know about the essence of Ronald is encapsulated. His wife has left him, and in her absence the entire world, animate and otherwise, has conspired to unhinge him utterly. That the kitchen is cluttered with two days’ worth of dishes we can infer; that the cleaning lady has given notice we are interested, though not surprised, to learn; that Ronald, incapable even of buttering bread for himself, turns out to be a psychoanalyst merely ices the cake deliciously.

Alice Thomas Ellis, known in private life as Anna Haycraft, was a master of this kind of comic writing, precise and distilled to essentials, yet laden with import. Her thirteen short novels are comedies of manners reminiscent of Jane Austen, but the stories play themselves out in a disorderly, and disordered, modern England where nothing matches up symmetrically at the end, and the world is not saved by advantageous marriages, or much of anything else. Like her American contemporary and fellow Catholic Flannery O’Connor, Ellis had a true ear not only for nuances in the human voice, but also for depravity and downright strangeness in the human soul. The situations in which her characters find themselves hang on the uncertain border between the macabre and the absurd. In The Other Side of the Fire , a contentedly married, middle-aged, upper-class housewife falls in love with her homosexual stepson, while her best friend’s college-aged daughter tries her hand, hilariously, at writing a romance novel. The Inn at the Edge of the World features an ill-assorted cast of lonely strangers, including an actress, a young man who is stalking her, and Ronald the inept psychoanalyst, who assemble for Christmas on a remote Scottish island surrounded by selkies, the seal-people of Celtic myth. Unexplained Laughter places Lydia, sophisticated, beautiful, cruel¯and newly jilted by her lover¯in a Welsh cottage with no company but a dull vegetarian friend, a family of neighbors with a store of dark secrets, and an inexplicable sound of laughing which animates the lonely hills. In a typically merciless turn of events, Lydia is given a pheasant by a passing gamekeeper and hangs it for days, according to English custom, before eating it. Betty, the vegetarian, prophesies pedantically that Lydia will come to grief for eating the pheasant and goes on primly consuming her alfalfa sprouts, only to be struck with food poisoning.

Ellis wrote of Liverpool, the city of her birth, that it had been in her youth “filthy dirty, yet magical.” The world of her novels is much the same. Her characters are largely either malevolent, ridiculous, or weary of living; some, like the bereaved Mary in The Birds of the Air , are incapacitated by their losses. The world they inhabit does nothing to alleviate their suffering, and in fact often seems organized toward the end of maximizing their humiliations. Claudia, the obsessed but self-aware housewife of The Other Side of the Fire , muses her way straight to the heart of Ellis’ fictional universe: “She thought it extraordinary that there should be so much sin around when it made the perpetrator feel so ghastly.”

Into the workaday realism of this universe the supernatural is always poised to intrude, in the form of unexplained laughter or of selkies, but like Job’s God, it frequently appears more frightening, capricious, and mysterious than actively good or merciful. Its ways are not human ways. Two of Ellis’ seven children died young; in her fiction, too, it is frequently the good and innocent who are lost, while the wicked wag their heads or else repent too late to stop the consequences of evil from taking their course. At the terrifying conclusion of her first novel, The Sin Eater , a vengeful family has tampered with the brakes of a car, only to learn that two beloved children, and not their intended victim, will almost certainly be killed in the accident they have engineered. The final scene has the mother of this family running into the road as the car drives away with the wrong people, trying in vain to summon it back: a devastating image of sin and its inevitable wages.

Still, Ellis’ sin-haunted fiction is not bereft of saints. Sometimes they appear as hermetic figures, vaguely menacing but gifted with unusual insight, like the solitary, “witchy” Sylvie of The Other Side of the Fire , to whom practically every other character in the novel comes for advice or to make confessions, or the mute, semi-omniscient Angharad in Unexplained Laughter . Sometimes they embody unambiguously Christ-like goodness. In The Inn at the Edge of the World , for instance, the most disinterestedly kind character¯also the one, in a cast of suffering people, to have sustained the greatest personal losses¯sacrifices his life to save a mad young man from drowning. Sometimes, again, their stories read like lives of early saints who have found themselves shoehorned into the contemporary world. Margaret, the benumbed young protagonist of The Summerhouse Trilogy , longs to be a nun but is trapped for the while between her harrying mother and a middle-aged boor who becomes her fiancé. And in The 27th Kingdom Valentine, a beautiful otherworldly novice, is sent to live with Mother Superior’s worldly sister in postwar London, in a household which includes a wicked nephew Kyril, lively and larcenous neighbors, and a cat named Focus, so that the other nuns will not discover Valentine’s gift of levitation. This gift nevertheless comes into salvific play at the novel’s conclusion.

These stories are clearly moral tales, though of course no good writer is merely a moralizer, and Ellis’ outcomes are nearly always ambiguous and untidy. If one person is saved, another is sacrificed. If a lesson is learned, it is a bitter one, usually of resignation. At the end of The Other Side of the Fire , having broken the bonds of her enslaving, animating obsession, Claudia is sewing by the fire when a visitor arrives.

“See who that is, will you, Edith,” she called, breaking off a length of thread, like Ariadne, with her teeth.

Plod, plod, plod went Edith to the hall window. “It’s a dark woman with a great big dog,” she yelled back. “Can’t see who it is.”

Mentally Claudia runs through all the possibilities, but concludes, in weary fatalism, that “It really didn’t matter any more.”

“If nobody dies it’s a comedy,” goes the saying. In Ellis’ comedies, however, every weather is the shadow of death, and her characters shiver even in the sun.

Sally Thomas is a poet and homeschooling mother in North Carolina.

References

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

The Other Side of the Fire , Alice Thomas Ellis

The Sin Eater , Alice Thomas Ellis

The Birds of the Air , Alice Thomas Ellis

The Summerhouse Trilogy , Alice Thomas Ellis

Unexplained Laughter , Alice Thomas Ellis

The 27th Kingdom , Alice Thomas Ellis

Articles by Sally Thomas

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