Alice Thomas Ellis’s life was overshadowed by tragedy, and so makes great reading in this, the month of death

I have just finished rereading Unexplained Laughter, Alice Thomas Ellis’s 1985 novel. It is a slim book, a mere 155 pages, and thus ideal for train journeys, slipping easily into the pocket. All her books were slim, which she claimed was an advantage, on the grounds that people did not have much time to read these days, and thus preferred short books. My copy was bought in a second hand bookshop, the excellent Blacklock’s in Englefield Green, whose erudite proprietor, Mr Graham Dennis, knew all about Alice Thomas Ellis. It is always a pleasure to be able to talk about books to a bookseller.

All Anna’s books are now second hand, because they are all out of print, as I discovered while researching an article that appears in the current Slightly Foxed. But as I said in that article, she would not have minded, as she was all her writing life sharply aware of mortality and the changeability of fashion. In Unexplained Laughter, the Anna character, expresses the desire to be buried in Wales. That has now happened, which gives the book, which is a very good one, a certain poignancy.

Incidentally, Unexplained Laughter was made into a television drama , and Diana Rigg played the Anna character, which was rather flattering, I am sure you will agree.

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In the Slightly Foxed article I explore the idea that Alice Thomas Ellis’s writing is essentially all about death. Her life was overshadowed by the tragedy of the loss of her son Joshua, and yet out of that terrible grief, great art was born. Her book The Birds of the Air, dating from 1980, is dedicated to Joshua, and has this inscription, which is still moving:

All his beauty, wit and grace
Lie forever in one place.
He who sang and sprang and moved
Now, in death, is only loved.

In that one place in Wales, she too now lies. And yet, her books are uplifting to read. Bereavement, particualrly the loss of a child in tragic circumstances, is very hard to live with; but it can be lived with; much as Anna wrote about death, she also wrote about the things that endure and the continuity of life. She makes great Novermber reading; this is the month of the dead, so please, visit a secondhand bookshop near you, and hunt down the late great Alice Thomas Ellis.

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