Friday, 10 March 2017

Unexplained Laughter by Alice Thomas Ellis


It’s pointless trying to sketch a plot outline for the novels of Alice Thomas Ellis. They are as formless as life itself and yet substantial because we travel with our own solidity. Lydia and Betty are going to be on holiday for 3 weeks in Wales. A device polished by usage is to place protagonists in a strange setting and subject them to events. There is a neat entrance and an exit like a what I did on my vacation essay for grownups. Lydia is a well known and strikingly beautiful journalist aware that there is a pattern to her love affairs.

Lydia had intended to spend the next few weeks alone attempting to eradicate those shafts of reminiscence, determined not to follow the common course and go round seeking replacements for her lost love, an undignified and doom laden procedure, leading to recriminations and disgust. On several occasions she had done this, trying to persuade herself that the new Tom, Dick or Harry was quite as desirable and worthy as the missing Harry, Dick or Tom. It had never proved satisfactory, and as she grew older she was beginning to recognise and make sense of the repeating pattern, like someone unrolling a flamboyant wallpaper.

Betty is good and being plain saves her from the trials of the proud beauty whom she does not know very well but having been invited in the polite way that you are supposed to decline decides to come anyway. Lydia to her chagrin twigs that Betty is being kind to a suffering exotic. Being pitied is not soothing.

Up the lane are a farmer Hywel, his wife Elizabeth, his brother Beuno and sister Angharad. This girl is a mute with a hint of deformity not made quite clear. Call her an Ariel Caliban mix, a damaged aer-sprite. She tells us:

Hywel’s brother Beuno is coming home. He is my brother too. It is his Christian duty to love me.
Listen.
I am laughing in the darkness

Is this the unexplained laughter of the title? But why does no one else hear it but Lydia. Must you be tuned to the same pain station? Angharad roams the hills and peers in windows without being discovered. She tells us:The wind is coming up the valley - quite slowly, like an army that will win.

Alice Thomas, that’s very good. You complicate things beautifully like the good cook that you were in life. There is sour misery, a jack by the hedge that got mixed in with the sorrel which dries your tongue to a log and as well the blancmange of comedy.

She (Lydia) felt the desolation of a child in a strange house, saddened by the alien nature of the sandwiches, bewildered by the peculiar quality of the trifle which the family of the house take greedily fo granted, almost afraid of the unfamiliar shape of the jelly, choked by the frogspawn lump of unshed tears, past which not one small sweetie can negotiate a passage.

Frogspawn must refer to that comfort staple, which I call love pudding, that you may know as tapioca. Lumps in tapioca. One shudders.

This is a very short novel a mere 202 pages of well spaced lines of large type. It’s that sort of thing that real readers read. She’s good. Does Lydia carry that laughter with her back to London?

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