Oddly-angled observation. The Sin Eater, by Alice Thomas Ellis
A cruel, caustic, witty, Catholic, almost-gothic novel.
‘The English don’t have passions,’ said Rose. ‘They have tastes: for porcelain and flagellation, and Georgian porticos–things like that.’
That sort of caustic humour is all over this book like prickles on a hedgehog. It’s partly the sort of social realism that traditional novelists do so well, and partly a way of creating a sense of unease. Everything in this book feels submerged, or politely threatening, or uncanny.
Alice Thomas Ellis has many qualities to recommend her other than this fine novel. She was Penelope Fitzgerald’s editor, didn’t publish her first novel until she was well into her forties, took her Catholicism seriously, and didn’t let doctrine stop her from being an original thinker. She joined an convent when she was young, but left for health reasons. Deo gratis.
There are all sorts of people you can compare Alice Thomas Ellis to, like Ivy Compton-Burnett or Virginia Woolf or Ronald Firbank. But what’s the point. She’s her own writer with her own sense of the macabre. ‘Malice sucks up the greater part of its venom, and so poisons itself,’ said Montaigne and that could well have been the epigraph for this novel.
There are many things that make this book an obstacle to modern readers. First, you have to pay attention. People speak over each other. The narrative unfolds with uncertainty. The woman you think is the main character isn’t. Things are shown or implied or just happen unobtrusively without being explained. I mean, it's not Ulysses, but it's refreshingly unpatronising.
Second, it’s Catholic. Not in that easy going Graham Greene sort of way with boozy priests and hints of incense. It’s properly, despairingly, Catholic. Whatever else the book is, it’s a polemical, melancholy, witty tract against Vatican II. She does make good wit out of her subject matter though.
Now the Church has lost its head, priests feel free to say what they think themselves, and they don’t have any thoughts at all except for some rubbish about the brotherhood of man. They seem to regard Our Lord as a sort of beaten egg to bind us all together.
Protestantism comes out with a few bruises, along with the fading Anglican upper classes of the late 1970s. Here’s a good blog pointing out some of the references the religiously uneducated may not benefit from noticing. And how about this quote, from the author, as something very few readers seem to agree with any more, at least judging by book sales.
Once you take away the religious element, you can’t write fiction. Well, you can, but it’s boring.
What I can tell you is that the ending of this book is horrifying. It’s the sort of concatenation of circumstances that jolts you like a live wire, and helps you forgive the persistent use of long words that you can’t quite remember the meaning of. All that subdued tension that was simmering away for 192 pages gets released like a devil right at the end. Good stuff.
If you are interested at all in twentieth century English novels, witty novels, Catholic novels, women’s writing, odd fiction, or just what it would be like if Jane Austen had been a severely disappointed Catholic with a taste for cruel jokes about bishop’s wives, this is a must read.
Here’s Frank Kermode talking about a sort of cluster of novelists Ellis can loosely be categorised with.
calm eccentric boldness is, for reasons I can’t pretend to know, a stylistic habit of the present moment, but only of some women writers. Perhaps they have rediscovered and modernised kinds of attention, kinds of wit, that belonged to novelists who were not trying to be men, like George Eliot; anyway, wit is now female, and so is bravado in the choice and handling of themes. Mrs Fitzgerald used to be published by Duckworth, as were or are Caroline Blackwood, Alice Thomas Ellis and Beryl Bainbridge: all practise surprise and cultivate oddly-angled observation.
And here’s a good article that explain Ellis’ work as ‘Gothic novels disguised as literary fiction’, perhaps the best categorisation available.
Gothic novels have their own special relationship to evil, and Ellis honors that relationship in all her books. She writes Gothic novels disguised as literary fiction... Ellis never wonders, Are there monsters in the world? To her, that query has already been asked and answered. There are ghouls and demons. There is unexplained laughter. There’s the darkness that lingers long after the story is done.
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