THE BIRDS OF THE AIR by Alice Thomas Ellis
Kirkus Star


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During the contemporary course of this dazzling satiric/philosophic novel, Britisher Ellis (in her first appearance here) blisters to a spitting turn not only her countrymen's curious Christmas rituals, but also such monuments as Winnie the Pooh and the Queen. . . while also touching quite seriously on theological mysteries. In a comfy antiseptic suburb of London, widowed Mrs. Marsh and daughter Mary mourn the recent death of Mary's young son Robin. And, with Mary irritatingly impervious to sympathy or medical help, a caustic corpse at the feast, the unhappy family and friends stumble in for the family Christmas: Mary's sister Barbara, of palsied ego and various dreads, married to loathsome Sebastian, a university professor whose smile casts ""a faint weasel gleam""; their son Sam, an unlovely lad of steadfast hatreds and murky diction; and Sam's sister Kate, a ruthlessly winsome child with an ego of awesome wingspan. Barbara knows that Seb is unfaithful, and she herself has locked in on a doomed fascination for editor Hunter--who arrives for the holiday with Mauss, an American publisher, tiresomely jovial, who says ""Yessure."" Also in and out: the traditional outcast couple one is kind to at Christmas and an untidy but well-meaning neighbor. Through arrivals and wavering departures into the snow, there's a marathon of meals and drink, reverent listening to the Queen's speech, and the inevitable flag of Christmas cheer: Barbara, zonked on drink, ends her fixation on homosexual Hunter while Sam, the prude, dumps water on her; Sam dyes his hair green; and there's an unholy crush at the festive board. Meanwhile, in the pulseless center of Mary's bereavement, a knowledge of death lies like a stone proclaiming that unheralded trick of God's, ""the sudden absolute cessation of vaulting, joyful life."" And amid the burned flesh smells of Christmas feasts, Mary dreams a tale of resurrection as the roasted flesh of birds is restored to life. As in any satiric stratagem where death is the wild card, compassion accrues here from the human comedy superimposed on the fact of mortality--and Ellis knows exactly how to fine-tune the balance. Brilliantly conceptualized and immaculately styled: a stunner.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1981
Publisher: Viking