While Christmas is often trumpeted as the season to be jolly, it can be an incredibly stressful time for many, throwing us together with relatives we rarely see and may well dislike, encouraging us to stuff ourselves with food and drink, and generally disturbing our usual routines. It’s a set-up that Alice Thomas Ellis cleverly explores in her excellent novel, The Birds in the Air, set in the fictional suburb of Innstead, a British hinterland between town and country.
As the book opens, the widowed Mrs Marsh is preparing for the forthcoming arrival of her extended family, trying to get things ready for the busy festive season. Her eldest daughter, Mary, is mourning the loss of her son, Robin, whose death hangs over the novel, intermittently alluded to but never fully explained. Mrs Marsh, on the other hand, is a stoical woman, very much of the ‘life must go on’ way of thinking, an approach that clashes directly with Mary’s lack of interest in day-to-day life. In truth, Mary wants to be left alone to nurse her grief, avoiding interactions with others, especially over Christmas.
She wished she could lie in the garden and come up later with the crocuses. What a rest that would be. She had lost interest in the world. A world in which Robin could die was a foolish, trivial place where nothing made sense and she had no desire to linger. (p. 102)
Meanwhile, Mrs Marsh’s other daughter, the dutiful Barbara, is embroiled in her own problems, prompted by the realisation that her husband – the loathsome Sebastian – is having an affair. As Barbara observes the various guests at their pre-Christmas drinks party, she spies Sebastian flirting with the wife of one of his colleagues, thereby confirming what her son, Sam, has already discovered.
Barbara was trying to be brave. She was cold, and her hands shook. Her face was dry and wore a cutout smile, as stiff and unnatural as a cardboard party mask, and she hardly knew what she was saying to the mobile faces around her as they opened and shut to speak or eat. She had told herself repeatedly that everyone else in this room had had extra-marital affairs and no one had died of it. No one minded any more – it was acceptable, it was smart, it was only human, it was ‘sophisticated’. At the old-fashioned word she felt tears in her eyes. She had never even learned to be sophisticated and now that everything had passed beyond the very concept she was lost – a stranger among her friends. (p. 34)
Sam is the eldest of Sebastian and Barbara’s two children – a rebellious teenager ardently railing against any form of conformity and control. Quite a contrast then to his younger sister, Kate, a highly precocious little girl with a tendency to boast, much to Sam’s annoyance.
Ellis is particularly adept at capturing the various tensions as the family gathers together in the confines of Mrs Marsh’s house, a claustrophobic environment that adds to the pressure within. More friends and neighbours subsequently arrive, most notably Sebastian’s publisher, Hunter, whom Barbara covertly desires. In the wake of her discovery about Sebastian, Barbara works herself up into a feverish state, entertaining the fantasy that Hunter is planning to seduce her – a misapprehension that can only end badly. Meanwhile, Mary continues to isolate herself from the rest of the party as far as possible, while Mrs Marsh is rushed of her feet, silently cursing the numerous fallings of her family.
Shot through with flashes of wry insight and barbed humour, The Birds of the Air highlights the casual savageries and absurdities that often occur in family life. Ellis is an astute observer of the suburban middle-classes, skewering her characters’ foibles with sharpness and precision.
Sebastian’s father, the judge, was a complacent man with a high colour, the set mouth of one who has never been contradicted and a voice which sounded as though he was perpetually swallowing a mouthful of expensive whisky together with a few fox hairs. (p. 54)
While none of these characters are particularly likeable, they do feel very recognisable – a testament to the author’s insight into human behaviour. Ellis also has a keen eye for detail with a mordantly witty edge – a note that adds a slightly menacing touch to this inconspicuous setting.
There had been a moon last night – a bridal moon, veiled and ominous behind the running clouds – but now there were only snow flakes, hurrying down and gathering as mobs gathered to overthrow tyrants. (p. 104)
This is a novella steeped in loss, jealousy and betrayal, but Ellis’s humour prevents it from being maudlin, balancing the darkness with some lovely flashes of absurdity.
My first experience of this author’s fiction, but hopefully not my last. Fans of Elizabeth Berridge, Beryl Bainbridge and Barbara Pym would likely enjoy this very much!
My edition of The Birds of the Air was published by Penguin; personal copy.