Fairy vodka: the real thing

FAIRY TALE by Alice Thomas Ellis, Viking pounds 16
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The Independent Culture
Every so often in an Alice Thomas Ellis novel something very peculiar occurs: a girl rises and glides through the air; a woman turns, albeit briefly, into a seal; a boy, known to be dead, is met sitting on a wall outside the pub. These transgressions of reality, it has to be said, worry some readers. They seem to be a momentary lapse of taste, a regrettable dip into the mystic, to be forgiven only because of the other pleasures Alice Thomas Ellis offers in her fiction - the malicious conversations, the metropolitan rattle of vodka and ice, the steely eye directed at Chelsea and Camden Town, Fleet Street and New Age moeurs.

Her latest novel, Fairy Tale, makes it plain that this reading is upside down. The impossible and the ineffable are not just volatile by-products of a Thomas Ellis narrative; they are at the centre of it - and indeed, why not, since modern fiction, along with modern physics, is one of the last remaining places where we may be invited to believe the impossible?

The characters assembled for this encounter are of mixed promise. There is the fey Eloise, 18, and her dim, well-mannered boyfriend Simon, who have gone off to live in the Welsh countryside, she to be at one with Nature, he to take up carpentry. They are joined in their bower by Eloise's mother, Clare, and her friend Miriam, two smart north London ladies who lunch. Meanwhile, on the loose and creeping towards the valley, is a Category A sex offender ...

So the scene is set for a battle between north London - St John's Wood, to be precise - and faery lands forlorn, since the valley is a stronghold of the Tylwyth Teg. Now these are not fairies as you or I might conceive fairies to be. They are described, variously, as resembling Mormons, real- estate agents or the lesbians said to man the ranks of the social welfare dept. They drink fairy vodka, do not possess hearts, and their dark business- suits remain dry in even a Welsh downpour.

Eloise suddenly gives birth to a child, a strange, cold, green-eyed little person; the cat is in a state of permanent alarm, the sex offender stalks Clare in a wood. There is interesting turbulence along the front between human- and fairy-kind. At one point, Miriam stays home alone with the week-old baby. "There was a silence and then the baby sat up and said, 'have they gone?' and Miriam said, 'yes' and the baby said, 'so let's have a drink then,' and climbed out of its cradle and waddled to the corner cupboard where the vodka was kept."

Various exciting - and, in one case, revolting - things follow; fairy vodka is drunk all round, and it is clearly a superior drink to the Russian: "The colours of the day altered, deepening and brightening ... now revealing hidden hollows in the ancient unvisited wood." After a close shave or two, the sinister changeling, the sex fiend and the Londoners are all despatched to their proper spheres. Our revels all are ended.

Or are they? The book jacket suavely promises that the novel is an "entertainment". But after an entertainment, the reader smiles, then gets up and goes on his way, disbelief calmly reinstated. There is some difficulty in this case, because one senses that the writer herself is not coming with us. Behind the jokes and the vodka, she believes in all of this more than we care to. The novel is in part a treatise against paganism, not because it is silly and fashionable but because it is old and dangerous. Fairy Tale is also, once again, a search for the transcendent, this time carried out by examining its opposite, which goes bump in the night. Yet perhaps the transcendent is best recorded obliquely, as a flash of light against which even memory shields its eyes. In this case, we are all made to stare rather too fixedly into the bracken.