Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Alice Thomas Ellis

I discovered Alice Thomas Ellis in the '90s through the venue of film. When I rented the video of The Summerhouse, a film starring Jeanne Moreau, a woman ahead in line at Blockbuster gushed about the film and Ellis's trilogy. It was a short trip from the video store to the bookstore.

Recently I've discovered some of Ellis's other novels. The 27th Kingdom, shortlisted for The Booker Prize in 1982, is perhaps her most famous work. Ellis, who wrote like an angel, created characters with more than a bit of the devil about them, and the denizens of this superb comedy, set in the 1950s, are no exception. The likable heroine, Aunt Irene, is an elderly, artsy Ukrainian immigrant, settled comfortably in Chelsea. Although she is kind and a devout Catholic, Irene is surrounded by dishonest people. She buys antiques from the delightful but crooked O’Connors, a warm family who are not above scavenging and theft. She herself has evaded income tax. She suffers twinges of guilt about most of her relationships: she has overindulged her nephew, Kryil, a cruel, charming womanizer who lives with her and takes advantage of everybody; she dislikes her snobbish cleaning lady, Mrs. Mason, an impecunious major's wife; she inadvertently sets up a "hit" on the taxman; and she evicts her morbidly depressed lodger, Mr. Sirocco, when her sister, Berthe, the Mother Superior of an English convent, asks her to take in a saintly West Indian postulant, Valentine. Valentine has been temporarily banished from the convent because she offended Berthe by climbing a tree to pick a particularly succulent apple. This chaotic comedy, which mixes up good and evil, startles as it drifts to a shocking conclusion.

If you’re not familiar with Ellis's work, you’re in for a treat. Her background is also fascinating. Born in 1932, she grew up in Wales, attended Liverpool School of Art, and was a postulant at the Convent of Notre Dame du Namour in Liverpool. She married Colin Haycraft, the owner of Gerald Duckworth & Company, and became fiction editor. She was also a columnist for The Spectator (collected in four volumes of Home Life), a conservative Catholic who opposed church reform, and the author of fiction and non-fiction, including a recent book on food, Fish, Flesh, and Good Red Herring. She was the mother of five children. She died in 2005.

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