Pillars of Gold by Alice Thomas Ellis

July 12, 2010

Moyer Bell, 2000

Finished: April or May 2010

Genre: novel of manners

On the Scales: middleweight

A few months ago I ended up at the main library while I waited to pick Der Mann up from work.  I hadn’t brought any of my book lists along, so I started browsing the fiction stacks.  I was feeling rotten–the kind of rotten where you desperately want a book to carry you off, but know from experience that 99% of them won’t do it.  Light fiction is unbearably trivial.  Heavy fiction is too much work.  Science fiction is improbable.  Fantasy is overwrought.  Romance is fatuous.  Young adult and children’s books seem designed to make the reader squirm at the authors’ naïveté.  Not a good day to be without my lists.

I got together a stack I wasn’t sure I would read just to have something to take home.  There I realized my autopilot selections had been two Eudora Weltys, a Booth Tarkington, an Alice Thomas Ellis, and a couple of dystopic science fictions.  Why do I gravitate to Southerners and celts when things are grim?  It’s not on purpose; that’s just how it always seems to work out.  Gail Godwin.  Eudora Welty.  Kaye Gibbon.  Iris Murdoch.  Jane Gardam (not a celt, but North Yorkshire almost counts?).

And Alice Thomas Ellis is the greatest of these.

Or at least the witchiest.  Ellis was half Welsh and half Finnish.  A number of her novels take place in Wales.  The first I read, I hated.  “How can they?  How can she?  What a mean lady!” Then I went back for another.  And another.  Now I am just annoyed at her for dying about the same time I discovered her and for not writing fiction until the latter half of her life.

I came across the word “mordant” lately, and that is almost the right one, but not quite.  Reading one of her novels is like hearing the best joke you’ve heard in ages then stubbing your toe and getting a gin-and-tonic thrown in your face while you are still laughing.  No one is nice.  Some characters try to be, but even the well-meaning are too (pick one or more of the following:) stupid, abstracted, compulsive, self-absorbed, passive, or vain for it to do much good.  Or harm.  Ellis doesn’t write catastrophes.  For her, human nature is catastrophe enough.

I make a point of saving her for the right mood.  Also, most public library systems tend to own just one or two of her books.  Both moodwise and book-itself-wise I hit the jackpot with Pillars of Gold.

The setting is a gentrifying neighborhood of North London in the 1990’s.  The main characters are three women neighbors (one of whom never makes an appearance), and a teenaged girl.  The title is from William Blake:

The fields from Islington to Marybone
To Primrose Hill and Saint John’s Wood,
Were builded over with pillars of gold;
And there Jerusalem’s pillars stood.

Pancras and Kentish Town repose
Among her golden pillars high,
Among her golden arches which
Shine upon the starry sky.

–which makes me shiver even though I do not like the last line or the break before it, and which was quoted at the beginning of the book.

I puzzled over why she took her title from this poem, and maybe there is no reason except that Ellis liked it, but I think it has something to do with a dreamy, transfixed unreality hanging over the lives of the characters for the week or so in which the story takes place; and possibly (I’m not familiar with London) that frozen, golden moment in time when an old city neighborhood still has a faint grip on reality, before the final plunge into the hands of the very, very rich.  Like characters in a piece of existentialist theater, Ellis’ three women never exit the stage (or in the case of Barbs the New Age-y American everyone secretly loathes, never makes an entrance), only wander back and forth from each other’s kitchens, in and out of the garden.

And they talk.  They talk about their lives, and they talk about Barbs–who disappeared without a trace without taking her purse–but never quite manage to do anything about them.  Constance sells jewelry that she Frankensteins from antique costume pieces and reads widely.  She inherited her mothers’ house, in which her large family of gipsy entrepreneurs store cardboard boxes of dubious origin.  She has Cypriot lover who may not be–but probably is–cheating on her.  Scarlet is the depressed wife of a nouveau riche advertising executive.  Her teenaged daughter Camille cuts classes and wanders around sitting on curbs and cadging drinks in tapas bars with her friends, exquisitely disillusioned and bored.

None of which tells you how good the book is.  This passage might start to give you a clue:

“You’ve got me now, anyway,” said Memet.  I’d never see you short of money.  You know that.”

“Do I?” said Constance.

Memet looked at her, uncomprehendingly.  Being a man, he could not understand why she should sound so doubtful.

“I’d never let you go short of anything,” he said, “and if anybody hurt you, you know what I’d do.”

“Yes, yes,” said Constance.  “I know what you’d do.  Blood everywhere.”

Memet was wounded by this.  “Why do you say it like that,” he asked, “as though you didn’t believe me?”

“It’s not that, said Constance, “I believe you all right.  Only when you’ve got brothers like mine, what you want is a bit of peace.  All my life I’ve had brothers breathing down my neck, watching my every move, checking on who I’m going out with and what time I’m getting home.  If I ever got talking to some man in a pub, it was more than his life was worth.  My brothers’d be watching his every move, just hoping he’d put a foot wrong so they could jump in and scrag him.  It wasn’t so much my virtue they were worried about as their own standing in the community.  They’re very medieval, my brothers.  So what I mean is . . .,” she said after a moment’s thoughtful silence, “it’s very nice of you, but I don’t need any more bother.”

Memet was silent too: he was more deeply offended that he could permit himself to show.  Constance, in a few words, had insulted his dignity, his pride, his sense of exclusiveness, his manhood.  He was beginning to get annoyed.

After an unnaturally long pause Constance became aware of this.  She had been injudicious.  Her worry about his probable infidelity had led her to attack him in an irresponsibly dangerous manner.  If she had spoken truthfully and expressed her doubts about his faithfulness, he would have been flattered, gentle, and full of mirth.  She had felt she’d rather die than give him the satisfaction, but now she’d have to be clever, for by implication she had denigrated his power and his commitment to protect her.  Not, she thought, that she needed his or anybody’s protection.  She had been well able to look after herself since she had been about seven . . .  But physical victory was a poor thing to a woman and little to preen herself on: any fool could disable another with a judicious cast of fist or foot, a neatly wielded weapon, or a dirty trick.  Her real power lay in her knowledge of others, her awareness of the weakness of men, the destructive weight of a well-timed laugh.  Telling a man the simple truth could reduce him to wreck, so that, on the whole, she held her punches and her tongue knowing how deeply she could wound. . .

Constance and Camille are the most likable of Ellis’ characteristically unappealing characters.  At least their faults are the natural result of being in love and and being on the cusp of adulthood, respectively; and they are funny.  Camille, especially.  You can tell Ellis spent a lot of time around teenagers.

“You’ve got bags under your pretty little eyes, Mum,” she said in her normal voice.  “I’ll wring you out a couple of tea bags.”

“That’s kind,” said Scarlet.  I think I’ve got a touch of hangover.”

“I’m not surprised,” said Brian, “not after what you put away last night.”

Once upon a time Camille would have dipped her oar in here: she would have turned on Brian for attacking her mother or chided her mother in no uncertain terms for being a drunken slut.  Or possibly, she would have done a bit of both.  As it was, she smiled, rather falsely, for while laughter came naturally to her, smiling, as yet, did not, since only babies and adults can smile with conviction: she realized that her face felt uncomfortable wearing this expression and reverted to her habitual frown.

Scarlet was relieved, since Camille’s adolescent smile had reminded her of the expression on the face of some ancient, alien reptile.  “Don’t be late home, darling,” she implored.

Pillars of Gold also has a definite plot and structure–good ones–which it could almost have done without; I’d have been happy to eavesdrop on Constance and Scarlet’s drunken late-night talks for a whole book twice as long.

10 Responses to “Pillars of Gold by Alice Thomas Ellis”

  1. Jenny said

    I exactly don’t gravitate towards Southerners or Celts when I am depressed and cranky. I gravitate away from them, and I complain about writers from my homelands being depressing their own selves. :p

    But I love these excerpts! So one of these days when I am not cranky or depressed, I’ll have to gird up my loins and give Pillars of Gold a try in spite of its dodgy Celt origins.

    • trapunto said

      Hm. Depressing, or depressed? Depressed I’ll allow. But then I’ll have to show my overall ignorance of Southern writers. Who were you thinking? I’ve just made little forays, really. But I probably wouldn’t have picked up Flannery O’Connor in the mood I was in.

  2. Teresa said

    I’ve been meaning to read some Alice Thomas Ellis for years, and my library does have a good half dozen of her books, including this one, so I have plenty of choices.

    I have a strange fondness for books filled with unlikable characters, at least when the author seems aware that they’re not likable, and I do like those quotes, so maybe I’ll start with this one.

    • trapunto said

      I think Pillars of Gold is a good starting place. It’s the most clever and least wild of the four I’ve read. I think she let herself come a little unglued (In a good way, but rather startling) whenever she set one of her books in the Welsh countryside.

  3. zibilee said

    Your description of Ellis’ work reminds me a bit of Mary Wesley. Have you read anything by Wesley? I have only read a couple of her books, but they sound sort of similar. I think this book sounds like just the thing I need when I am in a snit, and am glad to read that you were so pleased with it. I loved the quote about smiling with conviction as well!

    • trapunto said

      No I have not read Mary Wesley. But from her wikipedia entry I think I would love her! West Country almost counts as a Celt, too.

  4. bookgazing said

    Oh goody, nobody is nice, perfect for a certain kind of mood I agree. No one to straight forward sympathise with and yet so many people to enjoy observing (and possibly judging *rubs hands in glee*).

    I love this review by the way. When you compare the book to theatre where no one exits the stage I can see it in my minds eye, all these women caught up in such a tiny space as they grow more hot, annoyed and mean. Captivating and strangely escapist.

    • trapunto said

      Yes, and she lets you make your own judgements. Just shows you people being perfidious self-deceiving and what have you, doesn’t blaze PERFIDY HERE in neon lights. So you get to think you are extremely clever for figuring out all these silly people’s hangups, until you start to recognize yourself here and there.

  5. Jeanne said

    I adore your simile (hearing the best joke…).

  6. trapunto said

    For the record. No one has actually ever thrown a gin and tonic in my face. Although someone has thrown a glass of water in my face, and I have wanted to throw MY gin and tonic in someone else’s face.

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