I had a review all ready to post – but I got sidetracked by my FB Saint of the Day, Our Venerable Mother Irene of Chrysovalantou, a ninth century abbess who levitated, saw visions of angels, and was granted three holy apples from St John the Theologian.
So I reached for my copy of The 27th Kingdom by Alice Thomas Ellis (which, alas, is a clear illustration of why one really shouldn’t read in the bath – it may be good for the soul, but it’s definitely not good for a book, and as a result this one is badly crinkled). Anyway, in case you’re wondering, there is a link, because the novel features a levitating nun and an immaculate apple. Was Alice Thomas Ellis aware of the story of St Irene I wonder? I like to think she was.
For those of you who don’t know, Alice Thomas Ellis was the nom de plume of Anna Haycraft who was brought up by atheist parents in the Church of Humanity, but became a fervent Catholic in her teens, when she entered a convent as a postulate. However, ill health forced her to leave before taking vows.
These days, sadly, she is neither as well read nor as well known (and they are not the same thing) as she should be. She reminds me of Muriel Spark, but with a darker edge, and her slender novels are more surreal and macabre, with mysterious supernatural elements. There’s also a strong vein of humour in this particular novel, which is a kind of comedy of manners, a social satire in which lies are revealed and hypocrisies peeled away, and the end justifies the means when God’s Will coincides with that of Man, with chaotic results.
The scene is Bohemian Chelsea in 1954, where Aunt Irene (‘pronounced Irina’) has just received a letter from her sister, the Reverend Mother of a Welsh convent, asking her to take in a postulate who must test her vocation in the world. What the Reverend Mother does not reveal is that the young nun is possessed of miraculous powers: not only does Valentine levitate herself, but an apple she has picked remains fresh many months later.
The Reverend Mother is a pragmatist. She knows ‘there is nothing, absolutely nothing, as tiresome, exhausting and troublesome’ as a miracle worker in a small community. Nuns will get upset, and if word gets out the convent will be besieged by sightseers and journalists: so she decides Valentine cannot return until the laws of God and Nature are restored and the apple rots. Somehow I expected a religious institution would welcome miracles as proof of the Divine, but apparently not – and Sarah Dunant’s abbess in Sacred Hearts copes with similar problems by isolating a nun who experiences mystical visions, so perhaps the cover-up is common reaction!
Aunt Irene, of course, knows nothing of this and takes little interest in religion, attending church to be cheered up and because although she is indolent (she likes an easy life) she is also warm-hearted and desperately wants to be good. Her home is packed with old china, chintz and lace and she carefully cultivates a foreign air, because her Russian ancestors forsook orthodoxy for Roman Catholicism, were forced to flee, got the taste for travel and kept moving further and further away, across 27 lands and 30 countries, until they came to the 27th kingdom – Chelsea.
Aunt Irene shares her home with her nephew Kyril, and she sees herself purely in terms of their relationship. Her role as his aunt defines who she is, and she thinks him a wonderful being. He, needless to say, is what my mother would call ‘a bad lot’. He is attractive to ‘most women and some men’, which has ‘proved bad for his character’, and he’s an unpleasant, self-indulgent pleasure seeker, with no conscience whatsoever.
The household also includes little Mr Sirocco the lodger whose tale has a tragic ending. In addition there’s a taxman pursuing Aunt Irene; a drunken major ; his ultra-genteel wife, who has fallen on hard times and now cleans for Aunt Irene, and salt-of –the-earth Londoner Mrs O’Connor, the head of a criminal family.
When Valentine arrives she surprises them all, for she hails from the West Indies and is a ‘tropical angel’ trailing light and colour, silent but happy, accepting her lot, secure in her knowledge that God exists. And it is her arrival which precipitates the action and changes lives.Nominated for the Booker Prize in 1982, The 27th Kingdom may not be regarded as Alice Thomas Ellis’ greatest work, but she draws her characters with perception and the novel is people driven. The plot, such as is it is, could be described as a series of episodic vignettes, but that is part of its charm.
Verdict: I love Alice Thomas Ellis. I’ve read most of her novels, returned to this one several times and still enjoy it – so much so that I’m considering buying a replacement for my battered edition (and keeping it away from the bath).