Essays & Opinion

Book Review: Kingdom by Russ Litten


Kingdom is written by Russ Litten and published by Wrecking Ball Press. You can read our extensive interview with Litten here

Few books will capture your attention from the first page as Russ Litten’s Kingdom. Indeed, the quasi-surrealist opening scene in an unknown prison library is perhaps the most interesting and unique introduction to a novel that we here at Nothing in the Rulebook have read all year.

Of course, many novels start extremely well – explosively well, even – only to lose some of their initial spark and magic as the plot progresses. And while in this case the plot does settle down, it retains that opening magic for the entirety of the book.

While the action of the plot may be light on significant moments of incident (this is about gradual exploration of both the world and the self – more so than driving the narrative on through event after event), Litten’s style is infectious. And when you read writing as crisp and as fast as this, it is difficult not to turn page after page with a broad smile on your face.

Described on paper as a ghost story, this is unlike any ghost story you’ll have read before – and that’s a declarative statement we’re happy to be challenged on. More than anything, the book is a reflection on – and an exploration of – what it means to be alive (or not) in 21st Century Britain.

Indeed, what Litten explores, with gripping clarity, is a reality left unseen and marginalised in the national consciousness. As with works such as Alisdair Gray’s Lanark or Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, Litten vividly paints a picture of working class inner city life with concision, but also sensitivity and charm.

In the context of modern Britain, Litten thus explores the legacy of neoliberalism – which leaves us with a country of burgeoning inequality, stripping assets from the poorest and most vulnerable to redistribute them to the wealthiest in society. But we can all read statistics about income gaps, zero hour contracts and housing and rental crises; what is more difficult is imagining the realities these statistics infer for those people most affected by them. And this is where Litten’s remarkable writing skills truly enter the fray, because this book is not cold in the way facts, figures and statistics – or even political theory and rhetoric – so often is. It is rich, and warm – with a underlying, constant beating thread of humour which is both grim and good. And there are moments that will also hit you in the lungs and take your breath away.

Indeed, it is a hard task to think of a more sympathetic character than the novel’s protagonist, Alistair Kingdom. Considering Kingdom is self-described as having been “born a ghost”, creating such a compelling and fleshed out (pun intended) character from a ghost is quite some feat. And when Kingdom falls in love with another of the book’s great characters – Gemma – it pulls at the soul in a way few other love stories manage.

A clear reason Litten’s characters – especially Kingdom – seem to grow out of the page, is Litten’s use of language. For this is the language of real people.

For want of a better term, one might describe the changes in syntax, the interior monologue technique which leaves sentences unfinished and thoughts left unsaid – as well as the use of expletives – as “non-standard English”. But there is hesitation in using such a term since there is surely no “right” or “wrong” way to speak.

Indeed, using language in the way Litten does strikes the reader very much a political decision. Since Adam Smith’s Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres in 1748, there has been a conscious effort to standardize the English language; cultivating what Smith viewed as “the most imperfect” dialects found across the United Kingdom.

But what this standardization of language has meant is the obliteration of entire cultures and communities. Thousands of voices silenced, or pushed to the margins, seen as inherently other – as being beneath those who hold the power of “perfect” speech.

And when you take away an individual’s language, you also remove their heritage, their culture. Consider the words of Booker-Prize winning author James Kelman:

“Everybody from a working class background, everybody in fact from any regional part of Britain  none of them knew how to talk! What larks! Every time they opened their mouth out came a stream of gobbledygook. Beautiful! their language a cross between semaphore and Morse code; apostrophes here and apostrophes there; a strange hotchpoth of bad phonetics and horrendous spelling  unlike the nice stalwart upperclass English Hero, whose words on the page were always absolutely splendidly proper and pure and pristinely accurate, whether in dialogue or without. And what grammar! Colons and semi-colons! Straight out of their mouths! An incredible mastery of language. Most interesting of all, for myself as a writer, the narrative belonged to them and them alone. They owned it.”

By using language and accurate representations of working class, urban dialects, Litten thus presents us with a challenge to the status quo. Kingdom therefore provides us with a glimpse of the real United Kingdom that is so often otherwise ignored. An extremely timely and necessary book.



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