The fairy tales that stick with me are the ones that end badly. Any Cinderella story worth its salt works out well these days; satisfying - but not for long. The genuinely disturbing never quiet disappears though. I still find it unpleasant to dwell on Hans Christian Anderson for too long.
Alice Thomas Ellis never fails to disturb; everything I have read by her has a mythic quality about it. Occasionally it’s a sense of other worldliness as in ‘Fairy Tale’, but mostly it’s an awareness of shadows and rage. I first discovered her as a fiction writer when I picked up a title because it was published by Virago. The book was the ‘Sin Eater’- equal parts troubling and compelling. My second was ‘The Summer House Trilogy’ (also Virago) had the same disturbing qualities, and then a dead end – no more titles in print.
No real problem to round up the rest of her work, but in some ways it surprises me that obscurity is looming for her - Booker shortlisted in 1982 (that feels like it’s becoming a bit of a mantra), some of her novels adapted for television, and pitch black humour. Why is it that so many women writers answering this description seem destined to hover on the margins of our literary awareness? What is it that makes Angela Carter so fashionable, and Alice Thomas Ellis, who is not so very different, so difficult to find?
‘Fairy Tale’ is on my mind because I just got it back yesterday; it’s a book I desperately want others to read, desperately want to talk about. Unfortunately I can’t say very much about it without spoiling the plot, but I’ll give it my best shot. High summer, isolated country, and a sense of something wild, untamed and ancient combine to create a vaguely hostile, definitely uncomfortable world where the trappings of humanity are pathetic vulnerable things offering no protection. There are three women to fill maiden, mother, and hag roles, and a sort of virgin birth, and the whole thing is held together by a remarkable lightness of touch.
Hovering all the time on horror, inviting the reader’s active repulsion, events are leavened with an element of the ridiculous that maintains a knife edge balance right to the very end. What really stayed with me from this book is the suggestion that though the woods are full of nasty things, nothing can be as nasty as the woods themselves. The brothers Grimm would approve.
By way of a postscript my mincemeat is still behaving itself and the male has bought not only a copy of my errant Molly Keane, but also a Sarah Caudwell, which to read first is the sort of dilemma I can enjoy, and certainly takes the sting out of having nothing better to do.