What do you get when you combine a traditional British comedy of manners, dark-humored surrealism, a metaphysical allegory, and a cast of characters that includes a philosophical Persian tomcat named Focus? The answer is Alice Thomas Ellis’s appealing, offbeat novel The Twenty-seventh Kingdom. First published in Great Britain in 1982, the novel was a runner-up for that year’s prestigious Booker Prize. Especially notable is the fact that it is one of five published books to date by Ellis, who did not begin writing until her forties, after giving birth to seven children.
The book’s central character, Aunt Irene, is one of the last survivors of an upper-class Russian, Roman Catholic family who, over generations, fled political persecution in the Ukraine, Lithuania, Austria, Turkey—“or, as the story-tellers would have it, across 27 lands and 30 countries until they came to the 27th kingdom.” No longer wealthy, Irene operates a small, rundown boardinghouse in Chelsea, and her sister Berthe has ended up as Mother Superior of a convent in Wales. The two have never been particularly close, but as the story begins, Irene’s and Berthe’s lives are intersecting in an unexpected way.
The Mother Superior writes to ask a favor of Irene: Will she take into her house, for an indefinite period, a young nun who needs to “test her vocation” before receiving her vows? The details are fuzzy, only that the postulant is a West Indies native, an orphan, and that her name is Valentine. Irene agrees, though she has no vacant rooms. To make space for Valentine, she decides to throw out a current lodger, a neurotic loner referred to as “little Mr. Sirocco,” who is conveniently away on holiday at the time.
Mr. Sirocco is not the only resident of Dancing Master House, as Irene’s building is known, to have his careful routine thrown into disarray by the exotic, dark-skinned visitor. Irene’s nephew Kyril, handsome and obnoxious, has two goals regarding Valentine: to offend her religious sensibilities and to seduce her, in no particular order. Kyril has his work cut out for him. Valentine takes no offense at his constant jabs:
Aunt Irene glanced at her quickly. The girl was smiling—she didn’t mind Kyril at all. And she isn’t sad, thought Aunt Irene. She isn’t the least bit sad. She’s quiet because she’s happy. How extraordinary. Aunt Irene felt quite giddy with surprise and had to suppress a wish to reach out and touch Valentine as though she were a talisman. Perhaps it was the sun that made people happy. Her own people were mostly miserable. They wrote long glum books and sang glum songs and went on glumly about the extent of winter and the sound of the rivers freezing and the shortage of meat—not just the serfs who had had every reason to feel thoroughly depressed, but the rich and privileged. They worried about their souls and stared deeply and hopelessly into the depths of themselves. . . .
Kyril scowled. It looked as though Valentine wasn’t going to play his game, didn’t know the rules—didn’t even know there was a game. Kyril was extremely fond of winning, and he always won, because he was prepared to go beyond the bounds of the acceptable, but you couldn’t win against a person who wasn’t playing.
Valentine’s serenity and otherworldliness affect everyone she meets, with varying results. At one point, she even inspires a local girl, who was not theretofore religious, to take her vows at the convent. The housekeeper Mrs. Mason, on the other hand, takes offense at Valentine’s joining the household: “I don’t think it’s right for me to clean the bedroom of a half-caste,” she proclaims at one point. Valentine is unfazed by the racism: “Valentine shrugged. She had seen evil before. She didn’t like it, but it neither alarmed nor surprised her.”
As the repercussions of the girl’s stay continue to mount, the other characters have their own problems to deal with as well. Irene is stalked by a threatening, mysterious man she believes is trying to arrest her for long-delinquent income taxes. Focus is taunted by an amazingly agile rat that remains just out of his grasp. Kyril’s attempted seduction of Valentine strikes out in a major way.
When Irene returns late one evening from the...
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