Once upon a time – and it wasn’t so long ago – Alice Thomas Ellis and Beryl Bainbridge were twin stars in the literary firmament (and close friends and fellow ornaments of the Duckworth list). Since her death five years ago (in fact since rather before then), the former’s star has faded away (whereas Bainbridge’s still shines deservedly bright). This is a terrible shame, as Alice Thomas Ellis is far too good a novelist to be consigned to oblivion, or even Amazon’s 1p bargain bin.
I’d almost forgotten about her myself, but recently, on the recommendation of a Woman of Taste and Discernment, I read one I had missed when it came out (in 1990), The Inn At The End Of The World.
A short, razor-sharp comedy edged with tragedy, it’s a typical ATE novel, written in a dry, spare style that never wastes a word. It tells the story of five disparate – and indeed more or less desperate – people who come together at a small hotel on a remote Scottish island with the aim of escaping the Christmas festivities. Each of them is deftly and economically drawn and entirely convincing. What unfolds on the island is a brilliant comedy of love and misunderstanding but with a strong undertow of grief and of the supernatural – both handled with delicacy and restraint. It’s all beautifully woven together – complete with two running subtexts, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and the biography of General Gordon that one of the characters is writing.
There are moments in The Inn… that are laugh-aloud funny, more that are wincingly funny, moments that are unsettling and moments that are deeply moving. The effect of the whole is, thanks to ATE’s assured craftsmanship, deeply satisfying – what more could one ask of a short novel?
Some enterprising publisher should get this brilliant novelist back in print. Meanwhile I’d recommend raiding that Amazon bargain bin…
You can read Beryl Bainbridge’s moving tribute to her late friend here.