The 27th Kingdom

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9780140067040: The 27th Kingdom

The Roman Catholic Russian ancestors of Aunt Irene, the central character in Alice Thomas Ellis's new novel, were persecuted and forced to flee to the Ukraine, Lithuania, Austria or as the story-tellers would have it, across 27 lands and 30 countries until they came to the 27th Kingdom. For the good, kind and infinitely friendly Aunt Irene, her handsome but wicked nephew, Kyril, and Focus, a cat of alarming intelligence, this is Dancing Master House, a minute dwelling in the Chelsea. Two gossips, Mrs. O'Connor and Mrs. Mason, one dead common with criminal connections, the other an impoverished lady of the upper classes, clean for and take care of the needs of Aunt Irene and Kyril. From Wales, Irene's sister, the Mother Superior, sends Valentine, a beautiful, young West Indian postulant, ostensibly to test her vocation but really because of the embarrassing discovery that Valentine has miraculous powers. The story runs between angels and demons in a style which epitomizes the refreshing eccentricities of English humor.

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Review:

The 27th Kingdom is as mystical as it is malicious, a dark, surreal comedy about secrecy and self-deception. Chelsea, circa 1954, has its fair share of chatty bohemians, and Dancing Master House is positively overflowing with them. Its principal inhabitants are Aunt Irene, who fancies herself a "patron of the astonishing" and has a great fondness for horsemeat, and her vile nephew. Kyril is annoyingly handsome and has an entirely bad character. When a beautiful, black, and almost entirely silent postulant arrives for a brief stay, she quietly throws a theological spanner into the works--exposing and yet somehow protecting the two, and several other Londoners, from their worldly problems. Valentine doesn't so much need to test her vocation as to quell her miracle-working tendencies. At least according to the Mother Superior of her Welsh convent, who happens to be Aunt Irene's sister. Can this "vivid and alien" being, however, save Aunt Irene from a showdown with the taxman (who may be someone else entirely)? In the meantime, will Kyril manage to seduce her? And will Focus, the house's pillowy Persian, ever get near the rat that's been taunting him? Pleasingly, this pussycat has more insight than most of Ellis's humans, particularly when it comes to Aunt Irene's human kitten:

He'd morosely witnessed Kyril's numberless conquests, comparing him with the neighbourhood's dominant tom, a scratty looking object who stalked Cheyne Row. Focus had been made a eunuch for the sake of the sweetness of the air in Dancing Master House. He was glad, because it enabled him to take a removed and measured view of affairs--human, feline and, indeed, divine.
As she moves among her main characters, and as things go from mad to worse, Ellis constructs a fractured fable of good and evil. Not that she's interested in whacking us over the head. After all, as Aunt Irene's sister puts it: "How the vulgar loved portents, prodigies and the untoward. Only the religious knew how embarrassing they could be--and quite beside the point." This 1982 novel may not be as elegant as some of Ellis's other books. On the other hand, it's hard to resist a knowing, noisy exploration of the perfections of silence and the mysteries of belief. --Kerry Fried

From the Publisher:

Nominated for The Booker Prize when first published in 1982, this is a funny, eerie, surprising tale, set in London’s Chelsea and featuring an array of eccentric characters who encounter everyday situations that are suffused with otherworldly associations. With a new Afterword by James Mustich, Jr.

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