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)