I’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.