The Anglo-Welsh patriarch of an old family is dying in Llanelys, and his children and their spouses gather at the estate to await the end. Rose, the Irish wife of the oldest son Henry, is the sensible mother of twins who has worked to restore the estate and its gardens, make it a home, and, through her cooking, provide a sense of family warmth. In sardonic contrast to her is Angela, the oh-so-upperclass wife of the second son Michael, who looks down on Rose and everyone else not of the family's "class" and breeding. Arriving sometime later is the only daughter, Ermyn, young, schoolgirlish, and disturbed. Severely repressed and often ignored, she looks for answers in exotic religious expression, and like the sin eater of Welsh legend, believes she can take upon herself the sins of the Captain and the family.
Ellis wields language like a rapier, skewering family members for their caste-conscious concern with their "blood," and showing with mordant humor their deliberate separation from the community. The family is changing, if Rose, daughter of an Irish veterinarian, is any indication, just as Llanelys, now a tourist destination, has changed. But though the family may deserve to be satirized for its meaningless rituals, the local population is not exempt from Ellis's dissection, either. Phyllis, the caretaker for the Captain, saves the best of the family's food to feed her fat grandson, and he steals liquor and makes lewd, sexual overtures to Rose and Ermyn. Other townspeople mock the family, show their rudeness, and even break their windows.
Stunning imagery, delicious turns of phrase, and lively dialogue make the narrative sparkle. The hands of Rose's small twins are described as "so delicate and fine they felt like broken toothpicks in little silk bags," while the sea is "smooth and wrinkle-free, like the face of a saint or a psychopath." Blood is carried as a motif throughout, and references to old Welsh legends connect the family with the past and offer dire portents of the future. Despite the harshness Ellis exhibits toward some of her characters, the reader develops empathy toward Rose and understands that poor Ermyn needs more emotional help than she is likely to get, but Ellis never allows the reader to get comfortable with this family's world. She shows that just as the sin eater cannot take on the sins of others, life has no guarantees of happy endings. Mary Whipple