The 27th Kingdom by Alice Thomas Ellis

Back in May, I read and thoroughly enjoyed Alice Thomas Ellis’s 1980 novel, The Birds of the Air, a very well-observed tragicomedy featuring a wonderfully dysfunctional family. It was part of a set of four Penguin editions of this author’s early novellas that I’d found in a charity shop, each featuring a charming cover image by the artist Ian Archie Beck.

The 27th Kingdom was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1982, and I do wonder how it would be received by the equivalent panel now. In truth, it’s a rather peculiar book, to the point where my feelings about it oscillated quite markedly throughout. On the upside, there are some wonderfully eccentric characters here – most of them thoroughly unlikeable, which always makes for interesting reading. The setting and premise also promise much in the way of potential drama, although I think Ellis could have gone a little further with her ideas in the end. Most troublesome though is the dialogue, some of which feels clunky and cliched, even considering the period. More on that later as we get into the book…

This story – which takes place in 1954 – revolves around Aunt Irene, a rather eccentric middle-aged émigré who shares a home with and her adult nephew, Kyril. The dwelling in question is Dancing Master House, a small boarding house in London’s Chelsea – an environment that immediately ticks one of my boxes for interesting fiction. Kyril, an art dealer by trade, is a particularly unlikeable character – handsome, sardonic and vindictive, the type who enjoys stirring up trouble just for the thrill of it. Unsurprisingly, his chief target is Mr Sirocco, a timid little man who boards at Irene’s house.

He [Kyril] was fed up with little Mr Sirocco, who had turned out to be resolutely virtuous and very earnest in a dim and blundering fashion, and had quite refused to produce any free samples from the firm of wine shippers where he worked. ‘You must give up taking in deserving cases,’ he said [to Aunt Irene]. ‘They’re boring.’ (p. 13)

Aunt Irene is no paragon of virtue herself, viewing the boarders as an appreciative audience for her artistic talents, ‘raw materials to dispose of and manipulate’ as the fancy takes her. There are hints of dodgy activities too – possible tax evasion and the receipt of black-market goods – things that Irene’s charlady, the sharp-eyed Mrs Mason, has noticed over the years.

Mrs Mason, rolling up the sleeves of her cardigan, thought Aunt Irene looked like one of those backyard hydrangeas. It was significant that she had so many clothes – not all of them pre-war by any means and nothing Utility. Mrs Mason was absolutely convinced that Aunt Irene had traded with Mrs O’Connor in black-market clothing-coupons throughout the Duration. Her face grew lined and set with jealousy and she wished the taxman would come back – she could tell him a few more things. (p. 89)

Mrs Mason is a marvellous character who features prominently in the book’s wittiest passages, showcasing Ellis’s talents for a dry style of humour. The tensions between Mrs Mason and her employer are particularly well-observed.

Neither of these ladies were satisfied with the other, each being aware with a different degree of resentment that Mrs Mason was not designed by nature or nurture to be a char. (p. 16)

In truth, Mrs Mason is somewhat resentful of the need to work as a cleaning lady, a task she mainly undertakes to placate her dreadful husband, Colonel Mason, an abusive alcoholic who spends most of his time down the pub.

Early in the novel, Irene receives a letter from her sister, Berthe, the Reverend Mother of a Convent in Wales. Berthe wants Irene to take in Valentine, a postulant (or apprentice nun) as a sort of test of the girl’s faith. In truth, Berthe is somewhat unsettled by Valentine’s unusual powers, which have proven somewhat difficult to rationalise or pin down – in other words, she may or not be a saint. After a certain amount of hesitation, Irene duly accepts, welcoming Valentine to Dancing Master House, where she is installed in Mr Sirocco’s room. As such, the downtrodden Mr Sirocco is casually ejected, ultimately ending up in a depressingly barren room in the house next door.

Valentine is tall, beautiful and black, a composed young woman whose presence in the house should be rather calming. That said, Kyril is somewhat flummoxed by this new arrival when she fails to rise to his taunts. It’s a response he’s never encountered before, a development that leaves him rather perplexed.

While various peculiar things happen in the book – Irene hosts a party, someone dies, and a strange man is seen watching the house – this is not a plot-driven novel as such. Instead, the primary focus seems to be on the characters as they dance around one another, exposing their flaws and failings as various tensions ensue. In addition to the main characters already mentioned, there are some interesting supporting players here – perhaps most notably Focus, Irene’s wonderfully fluffy cat.

Focus found the atmosphere lowering and asked to be let out of the front door.

‘Well, be careful,’ warned Aunt Irene. ‘Some awful person might make you into a muff. Don’t leave the garden.’

Normally Focus wouldn’t have dreamed of leaving the garden. He would sit under the magnolia daring its blossom to compete with his beauty, and watching the birds, but he was no different from anyone else when it came to being ordered about. He didn’t like it. (p. 123)

Where the book falls down (for me at least) is in its depiction of the O’Connor family, a bawdy band of tricksters who specialise in house clearances and black-market goods. It’s here that the characterisation feels thin and cliched – especially in the cockney dialogue, which quickly begins to grate.     

‘Valentine, nip roun’ Peabody Buildin’s and look for a pram, ‘n’ when you’ve foun’ one fin’ out ‘oose it is and make ‘er give you the baby’s orange juice. Tell ‘er it’s a matter of life ‘n’ deaf. ‘S the only fing,’… (p. 96)

Sadly, there are some rather unfortunate examples of casual racism here too, such as the use of ‘half-caste’ and ‘piccaninnies’ by one of the characters to describe Valentine and her family. While Aunt Irene clearly disapproves of this behaviour, it doesn’t make these passages any easier to read.

So, in summary, there’s quite a lot to enjoy in this novel, even if the cliched dialogue and casual prejudices take the shine off it somewhat. As the story unfolds, we learn more about Valentine’s tragic past, an event that ties her to one of the secondary characters in the story. At one point, I wondered whether the book was heading down a Lolly Willowes-ish route, with its flashes of tragedy, spiritualism, absurdity and levitation, but it doesn’t entirely take off in that fashion. Something of a missed opportunity, perhaps, at least in part…

Nevertheless, I’ll finish with a final passage that points to Ellis’s flair for a wicked touch. There are some wonderfully mordant images here, hinting at the small savageries of family life.

On the table were some warlike scarlet tulips in a Chinese bowl writhing with dragons. It was a room for the night time and looked at once wicked and pitiful in the dawn light… (p. 25)

15 thoughts on “The 27th Kingdom by Alice Thomas Ellis

  1. A Life in Books

    Always a risk to write in dialect. It so rarely works. Sadly, I suspect that casual racism and use of language reflects the period. I like to see it as a mark of progress that it shocks us now when we read it.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, exactly. I felt that about the casual racism too – it’s almost more shocking than seeing it in a novel from the 1930s as this is closer to the present time. That said, while the novel was published in the 1980s it’s actually set in the mid ‘50s, and sadly those attitudes were not uncommon back then. I should also emphasise that Aunt Irene doesn’t condone her charlady’s prejudices as the comments in questions don’t go unchallenged. Still, it does make for uncomfortable reading. The hackneyed dialogue is a bigger barrier, I think, particularly as there’s quite a lot of it in the book!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m not surprised to hear you are a fan, especially given Ellis’ sharp dissections of dysfunctional families. There’s quite a lot to enjoy here, although the issues I mention in my piece stop it from reaching the heights of ‘Birds’ for me. I’ll keep going with her though, especially as I still have a couple to read!

  2. gertloveday

    Goodness How intriguing. So many conflicting themes here. I have a vague memory of Thomas Ellis as having religious/Catholic sympathies, which put me off rather.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, there’s definitely a spiritual element in the midst of her themes, but luckily it’s not too heavy-handed or overplayed. She’s very sharp on the small savageries of day-to-day life, especially within families, and her worldview can be quite barbed at times. You’d appreciate those aspects of her work, I think!

  3. heavenali

    Oh dear this sounds so good on many levels, the boarding house, lots of odd eccentric characters, I can really imagine loving all that. Such a shame about the clunky, Cokney dialogue and casual racism. I am less bothered when I find that racism in a book from say the 1930s (I accept it as of the time, while still disliking it) than those published much later. I know Ellis was publishing mainly in the 1980s, so I find that quite shocking. Perhaps I am naive.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, SO much to enjoy here, and I’m still kind of in two minds about it. While the book was published in the early ’80s, the story itself is set in the 1950s. So, the prejudiced comments were probably fairly common back then, especially from someone like Mrs Mason – a charlady with fairly old-fashioned views. The hackneyed Cockney dialogue is more of a issue though as it does get a bit much after a while, especially in the second half. But if you can get past those two barriers, it’s quite a delight!

  4. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Such an interesting review, Jacqui. Some of those passages you quote are brilliant and I can see why you’re attracted to her writing. The problems you highlight are also interesting; the racist comments are unpleasant but perhaps more of the time the book was written and also when it was set. Not nice, but you could perhaps move over them. However, that kind of cliched dialogue is really irritating – it turns up in GA Crime at times and it does grate, but again is of its time. Mind you – by 1982, I would have hoped this kind of thing would be fading. I wouldn’t rule out reading her, though, as her prose does seem to be very good, and I like character driven books!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. She’s definitely worth a look, and (as you say) much of her writing is excellent – those characters are very sharply observed. Maybe I’m being a little harsh with my niggles over this one, as they’re probably somewhat indicative of the times (the casual racism at least). Thank goodness times have moved on since then. Still, I do wonder what the Booker judges made of all that ‘Del Boy’ dialogue at the time as it definitely feels somewhat cringeworthy now!

  5. Liz Dexter

    This does sound interesting and I love the cover (did that author do Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey in that ed., I wonder?). Casual racism that’s knocked back I can sort of deal with; cod-Cockney not so much! But worth picking up if one comes across it, I’d think.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, she’s worth keeping in mind, although I’d suggest you go for The Birds of the Air if you do happen to find more than one of her books in the secondhand shops. The artist is Ian Archie Beck, a reader of some distinction himself, I think. Not sure if he did the cover art for Oscar and Lucinda, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised!

  6. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  7. 1streading

    This makes me feel nostalgic as I can remember seeing her novels in bookshops in the 80s – one of those authors who seemed to be everywhere but who has now disappeared. A pity that some of the characterisation is stereotypical, but that may explain the disappearance!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I’d been thinking how that might have prevented her being revived alongside other previously neglected authors, writers such as Barbara Comyns or Janet McNeill…


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