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The Atlantic Monthly | April 2001
New & Noteworthy
The Inn at the Edge of the World
by Alice Thomas Ellis
Akadine Press/Trafalgar Square, 187 pages, $14.95
rom Canterbury Tales through Ten Little Indians, putting strangers together in a strange place has been a stalwart and irresistible literary device. Here the pilgrims are lured to an island off the coast of Scotland by Eric, a sour innkeeper hoping to drum up some off-season business from among the many mainlanders who are "dreading Christmas." He manages to collect Harry, "a military man, disciplined and tidy," who "had been sad for almost as long as he could remember"; Jessica, an actress who is paid "vast sums ... for praising toilet soap and tea-bags"; Anita, a disgruntled department-store manager; Ronald, a psychoanalyst whose wife and cleaning lady have simultaneously abandoned him; and Jon, a beautiful young man with golden hair.
Harry reflects that "all the people in the inn were in the throes of disappointment: that was why they were here." But the dull gray sky and the indifferent sea do little to distract them from their private concerns, while ghosts, madness, and thoughts of murder seep in with the damp. This novel is not, however, either depressing or melodramatic: Alice Thomas Ellis's ironic sense of humor pokes up everywhere like crocuses in March. Eric, contemplating a rival pub down the coast, feels "the bewildered wrath of the simple, virtuous maiden, modestly conscious of her worth, who is rejected in favour of the painted, flouncing fire-ship, all empty promise and implicit hazard." Finlay, the island man-of-all-work, and a laconic woman known only as Finlay's sister-in-law (said to be a "selkie," or seal person, and smelling strongly of fish), play consistently comic bit parts.
Ellis, the author of several novels, was in her youth a postulant and is today the mother of five—facts that perhaps inform her broad grasp of human nature and the elusiveness of contentment. The Inn at the Edge of the World was originally published in Britain, where it won the 1991 Writers' Guild Award for Best Fiction.
Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; April 2001; New & Noteworthy - 01.04; Volume 287, No. 4; page 104-108.