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Pickle Me This

July 8, 2011

Mini Reviews: Granta 115 and The 27th Kingdom by Alice Thomas Ellis

I bought Granta 115 for the Rachel Cusk essay “Aftermath” on her divorce, but as I read through the issue I quickly learned that one needs no excuse to buy Granta except that it’s Granta at all. What a discovery– yes, it’s a $20 magazine, but the price is more than worth it. being about 10 books in one. The Rachel Cusk essay was as complex, troubling and fascinating as I expected– I will have to read it about five more times to really understand it. Her prose is not readily accessible, the reader has to make her own way, and yet this path-blazing is so utterly engaging, and is why Cusk’s prose stays inside my head for ages after.

There was not one piece in this issue that was not a pleasure to read. I realize that 115 is a bit of a departure, comprising only female contributors, but this commitment to quality probably isn’t a one-off. For me, most notable were Julie Otsuka’s “The Children”, Francine Prose’s “Other Women”, Jeanette Winterson’s “All I Know About Gertrude Stein,” and Caroline Moorehead’s “A Train in Winter.” The last is a story of a group of female members of the French resistance who were taken to Birkenau, an absolutely brutal, stunning tale of devastation, depravity and survival, and this appears alongside Otsuka’s story of second-generation Japanese in America, Francine Prose’s thoughts on ’70s consciousness raising, Rachel Cusk and her divorce, and Janice Galloway’s “We’re Not In This Together” about the difficulty of obtaining contraception in the ’70s. Then stories of Haiti, Africa, India, and A.S. Byatt in the north of England. The contents of the issue are troubling, amusing, contradictory, complementary, as various as feminism itself, but so terribly good. What a fantastic introduction.


And then, why has Alice Thomas Ellis’ The 27th Kingdom been sitting on my shelf for years? Perhaps my new favourite book lately, sortof a mash-up of Hilary Mantel’s best social satire (Everyday is Mother’s Day) with her Beyond Black supernatural bent, a bit Graham Green’s Travels with My Aunt thrown in for good measure, also Muriel Spark’s The Comforters. I’d read Alice Thomas Ellis’ Birds of the Air some years ago, but it had not prepared me for the wit of this novel (shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1983). It’s the story of a chaotic household in 1954 Chelsea, presided over by Aunt Irene, who fawns over her precious nephew Kyril, and who is well-serviced by local thieves to keep her in style. Her sister is a nun in Wales who sends to Aunt Irene a mysterious girl called Valentine whose presence causes strange events throughout the neighbourhood. Ellis had a mind for humanity at its most ridiculous, for the English at their most ridiculenglishness. What an extraordinarily wonderful book . (And do note, I’m reading though Es now– this is very exciting).

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