A dark Christmas tale with intimations of light, this set in that unmerry old England where unemployment and squalor still distort lives, and things mostly get worse. Acclaimed English writer Mackay (Dreams of Dead Women's Handbags, 1994, etc.) excels at depicting characters struggling to survive amidst random disasters and sapping tedium. And her latest, a downbeat lead-up to precarious Christmas joy, typically focuses on life's losers and innocents. Here, unemployed (again) John, who has just seen a young man's finger cut off at the butcher shop, is way behind with the rent and must move his family in with Uncle Cecil. For John, the butcher shop accident becomes just another example of the wretchedness of a life that has never been easy since his Socialist parents devoted themselves more to the Party than to their family. Now, John buys an Advent calendar to ease the move, and as the 25 days pass until Christmas, he, wife Marguerite, sister Elizabeth, Uncle Cecil, and Elizabeth's pupil Joy suffer any number of setbacks. John finds a job with the Cleaning Boys, but soon loses it; then, still troubled by seeing the man lose his finger, he tries to help the victim but nearly gets beaten up. Meanwhile, Cecil's beloved goat gets ill; Margaret has an affair with the veterinarian; Elizabeth worries about how she's to spend Christmas, and her plan to help 15-year-old Joy feel better about herself by getting her a part-time job goes awry. It also looks as if there won't be enough money for presents. But even the darkest lives have their brighter moments: Money is found for gifts, John's parents come through with a job offer, and Joy's self-esteem gets a boost. On Christmas Day, all celebrate happily, ``carousing on a sandbank in time, music and laughter drowning the sound of tomorrow's tide.'' A Christmas story without the mistletoe and the message, but no less moving.