"The Inn at the Edge of the World" by Alice Thomas Ellis was first published in 1990, and a new edition under Constable & Robinson's Corsair imprint is very welcome. Eric and his wife Mabel run an inn on a remote Hebridean island. Both are out of place in a venture which Eric hoped would represent a new beginning and a better life, but which Mabel never wanted. Eric places an advert in a number of weeklies and magazines for people wanting to get away from Christmas by spending it in "an inn at the edge of the world." The five individuals attracted by Eric's advert are as ill fitting as their host: host in the singular as Mabel leaves as the guests arrive. Ex-military man Harry is writing a book about Gordon of Khartoum, and has his own reasons for wanting to stay in this particular inn; Jessica is an actress; Jon is a young actor who has followed Jessica to the island, though she can barely remember having met him; Anita is a salesperson in a department store; and Ronald is a psychoanalyst who has been left by his wife.
The book, undivided by chapters, largely revolves around the interactions of the five visitors and their host, and a number of not very local locals who have houses near the inn. Plus some enigmatic islanders. As the book unfolds we find out more, sometimes more than we want to, about what makes the characters tick, and the ebb and flow of different relationships helps the book build towards a climax that is genuinely unexpected, and just a little shocking as a result. This is a gentle, sometimes gently amusing, book that draws you and in makes you like, or at last understand, a series of individuals most of us would probably not want to spend our Christmas with.
The island is never more than just that: the island. And as the book progresses, the island itself begins to develop a character and a presence that helps draw the story towards its conclusion. Anyone who knows the Hebrides at all well will probably find themselves distracted in the early part of the book trying to work out which island the author had in mind for the location. Before, like us, coming to the conclusion that nowhere fits at all well, and the island is not intended to have a precise location.