Against the ruins of love and idealism, Alice Thomas Ellis shores up the fragmentary consolations of art. Her books are beautifully fashioned, tailored, cut from superior cloth: you're aware of the chunks from the fabric of experience that she has rejected, and her characters know just enough of the outside world not to be able to make sense of themselves. The setting (Oxfordshire/Berkshire? - anyway, the Radcliffe is where you rush for a casualty ward) might suggest this is Pym's No 1 country, but the heroine Claudia is married to a businesslike printer, and Silicon Valley is obviously just down the road. I say 'heroine', although with characteristic artifice Ellis has devolved some of the responsibility. Claudia is the focus of the fairly slender narrative, but the centre of awareness lies with her friend Sylvie, calmly disillusioned and cruelly direct ('I say men and women are incompatible and shouldn't spend too much time together at all ... Swans and pigeons and things seem to muddle along quite happily, but most mammals don't'). It isn't that the author backs Sylvie exactly, simply that she is allowed the eloquence of her convictions.
LRB 22 December 1983 | PDF Download