Unexplained Laughter

unexplained laughterI’ve read several of Alice Thomas Ellis’s books now, and I always leave them thinking how good they are, but also how unsettling. Her books are comedies of manners, but they are also severe considerations of morals and conscience, through the lens of Catholic justice. She is extremely funny and even whimsical, but her wit can be so trenchant that an unsuspecting reader can have her fingers bitten to the bone. She is no stranger to terrible grief, nor to whistling past the graveyard, sometimes in the same sentence. And through each book is woven a thread of what I might call matter-of-fact otherworldliness — strange things happening, or possibly not happening, just out of the reader’s vision.

In Unexplained Laughter, Ellis repeats a successful formula: she puts an extremely ill-assorted group of people together in a small place and watches their discomfort (and sometimes their outright mischief) grow and flourish. In this case, sophisticated journalist Lydia has beat a retreat to rural Wales in order to recover from the latest in a depressing series of bad romances. She brings along a companion, Betty, “the human equivalent of sackcloth and ashes,” an action she regrets almost as soon as they arrive; the two have deliciously ironic dialogues as their different temperaments clash.

Their only social life consists of people from the neighboring farm: dour Hywel; his fearful wife Elizabeth; the doctor with whom Elizabeth is having an affair, and Beuno, who is studying to be a priest. They have walks, picnics, a dull dinner — all in marked contrast to Lydia’s vibrant life in the city — but the conversations are something else again. Instead of the banal talk Lydia expects, she discusses God and love, good and evil, conscience and betrayal. (She dubs Satan “Stan,” dropping one of the As, in order to make him feel a little less threatening.) Beuno is “one of us,” she thinks, but it is she who changes.

At intervals, when she’s alone, Lydia hears laughter — laughter only she can hear. This, we gradually come to understand, is the laughter of Angharad, a mute, deformed “free spirit” (or demon), Hywel’s younger sister, who roams the woods and hillsides, eavesdropping on conversations, bound to the land but free in a different way. This eerie echo of Lydia’s own spiritual state adds an unreliable note to the novel. Does Angharad even exist? Who, or what, is she? As Lydia learns more about the real world, the natural world, the human spirit, who can she thank for her revelations?

This is Alice Thomas Ellis: unsettling. She leaves you wondering what exactly happened, what is the truth, and whether it matters. She doesn’t care whether you believe in spirits, or selkies, or fairies — it’s not the point. Instead, she wants you to take the unexplained laughter for what it’s worth, and see what you make of it. I wouldn’t recommend this to everyone; it can be a bit biting, a bit curmudgeonly, a bit knotty and ambiguous. But I think she’s very good indeed, and I look forward to reading a lot more of her work.

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6 Responses to Unexplained Laughter

  1. Alex says:

    I read and loved ‘The Summerhouse Trilogy’ when the noels first came out in the 1980s and I hadn’t thought about Thomas Ellis since. Checking, I see that three are many other books available and recalling the pleasure her work gave me and reading this review makes me realise that I should go back and rediscover her through those novels I have yet to read.

    • Jenny says:

      I have loved everything I’ve read by her, especially The Inn at the End of the World and Fairy Tale. I think The Summerhouse Trilogy will be up next for me!

  2. Elle says:

    My parents have a copy of The Inn at the End of the World, and I always found the title fascinating, but didn’t pick it up as a kid, and now I don’t live there any more! I’ll have to ask my mum what she made of it. Thomas Ellis sounds like one to look out for.

    • Jenny says:

      The Inn at the End of the World is one of my favorites of hers — it’s a peculiar book, though. If you read it, I’d love to hear about it! I also recommend her memoir, A Welsh Childhood.

  3. Teresa says:

    I wish I could remember which of her books I’ve read. I think it was The Sin Eater. Whichever one it was, I liked it, and whenever I see her name mentioned, I think I need to read more of her books, but then I promptly forget. You know how it goes :)

    • Jenny says:

      I haven’t read The Sin Eater, but I’m going to try to get through more of her books. I think you’d like Fairy Tale and The Inn at the End of the World; they seem like your sort of thing.

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