I discovered Alice Thomas Ellis years ago through the Common Reader catalogue (may it rest in peace.) Her novels are terrific, but always unsettling. She is both severe — she has an uncompromising Catholic sense of justice — and fey; she is unafraid to touch both unspeakable grief and gallows-humor, sometimes in the same sentence; she is whimsical, funny, kind, and so mordant that the reader sometimes comes away bitten to the quick. Her characters are profoundly alive. They are so alive that they are recognizable, and I sometimes feel that she barely changed the names from the people I know at work and school and church. Yet these real-life people populate worlds in which myths operate at the bare periphery of human vision, odd things happening just out of sight.
I wonder whether I’ve given you any sense of how strange, and how good, Alice Thomas Ellis is. The Inn at the Edge of the World is both strange and good, but there aren’t many people I’d dare recommend it to. It’s… it’s curmudgeonly, that’s what it is. It begins with a man who has bought an inn at the edge of the world, where sky blends into sea, in the Shetland islands, and regrets it bitterly. The locals don’t welcome him, and he’s not making any money, and his wife alternately nags and mocks him until he fantasizes about being rid of her:
Not for the first time Eric tried to imagine how he’d feel if he murdered her. Not how he’d feel while he was doing it — the act, no doubt, would give him a momentary satisfaction — but how he would react afterwards. His principal emotion, he thought, would be embarrassment. Murder was neither respectable nor sophisticated; for the rest of his life he would feel miserable and shy if anyone so much as glanced at him. The whispers — “He murdered his wife, you know.” He had no real fear of the immediate consequences since he thought he would only spend a few years in jail with remission for good conduct. He could give a course on engineering to the other inmates. A number of wife-killers had got off very lightly recently. He had once asked a customer, a solicitor from Edinburgh, about the complexities of divorce. The man had advised against it these days. It was a lengthy, expensive, and disruptive business, fraught with recrimination and ill-feeling. It was quicker and neater, he said, to murder your spouse, plead intolerable provocation or insanity, or what you would, pay your debt to society and emerge from open prison to resume life with your property intact and no maintenance payments to worry about.
Without much hope, Eric puts out an ad, inviting people who hate and dread Christmas to escape from it by coming to the edge of the world, to his inn. What sort of people would answer an ad like that? Well, the sort you’d expect: the exhausted, the self-absorbed, the desperately lonely, the mad. And this isn’t a book about how they all connect, and Learn to Love, and Find the Meaning of Christmas, either. It’s a much stranger book than that, and there’s not a thing predictable about it.
Through the interactions of the characters, as they find out more about themselves (or strenuously avoid finding out anything at all about themselves), there winds a thin thread of what I might call matter-of-fact otherworldliness. It is in the Orkney and Shetland islands that myths about selkies originate, and here they are — or are not: a fur coat carelessly left hanging on a peg; a strange woman with webbed fingers; someone just out of sight dancing in the moonlight; seals watching from the water. Is it selkies, or is it unfriendly, inbred locals and the effects of too much whiskey? Ellis isn’t going to unravel it for you, and it’s not the main story, it’s just barely at the edge of your vision. Catch it, or don’t, she doesn’t care, until suddenly it becomes gorgeously pivotal.
As I said, this isn’t a book I’d recommend to very many people. I didn’t feel that it offered itself up very easily. I’ve read other books of hers (Fairy Tale, The 27th Kingdom) that were easier to get along with. But that said, I thought that The Inn at the Edge of the World was marvelous. It was just the knotty, silvery book I wanted at the time. If it sounds appealing to you at all, pick it up, or anything else by her — her nonfiction is lovely, too, like A Welsh Childhood. She’s not very widely read, that I can tell, at least not in the US, and she deserves to be.