Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 29, 2016

The Birds of the Air (1980), by Alice Thomas Ellis

The Birds of the AirI had never heard of British author Alice Thomas Ellis (1932-2005) until I read Guy’s review at His Futile Preoccupations but the review was enticing, and it was all too easy to download it to my Kindle.

Alas, it was not so easy to read, however, because this edition from Corsair is very badly formatted with stray hyphens causing mangled words all over the place.  Although the formatting improved as it went along, it was very annoying in the early chapters – so if you find yourself tempted as I was, don’t follow my example and buy this Kindle edition.  Not when you can buy a proper second-hand paperback edition from Amazon for a song. #EndOfRant

The Birds of the Air reminded me straight away of Susan Johnson’s best-ever  novel IMO,  Life in Seven Mistakes.  (See my review). Both novels are set around the dreaded Annual Family Gathering at Christmas, and black humour laces the story from start to finish.  However, the novel by Ellis features an existential crisis of a different order altogether, because the main character Mary is still coming to terms with the death of her child, Robin, and isn’t ready for compulsory Christmas cheer.

However, I’m not inclined to be as hard on Mrs Marsh as Guy is.

Mary’s mother, the indefatigable Mrs Marsh, is of the generation that survived the war.  Stoicism is for her, a badge of honour, and although she is herself widowed and still grieving her loss, she believes that grief is private and that one ought make an effort.

‘Won’t it be nice when Barbara and Kate are here?’ urged Mrs Marsh. ‘And Sam and Sebastian too,’ she added with less enthusiasm.

‘Lovely,’ agreed Mary. ‘A family Christmas,’ continued Mrs Marsh dreamily. ‘All of us together.’

Later, at the kitchen sink, she convicted herself of tactlessness and, as punishment, washed the dishes in water that was slightly too hot for her little white hands, for assuredly had things been otherwise Mary would not have been here.

But I am coping very well, she thought, comparing herself with her daughter and torn between pride and pity. She missed John very badly. She permitted herself to weep a little each morning in the bathroom before she put on her eyeshadow, but she knew and accepted what apparently Mary did not – that life had to go on. (Kindle Locations 134-141).

Although Mrs Marsh seems not to grieve much for her grand-daughter, she does mourn the loss of her daughter, no longer the person she was:

‘Why you had to have a funeral in the country . . .’ her mother was saying. ‘Father’s buried here . . . all that way . . . so tiring . . .’ Mrs Marsh had imagined for a while that bereavement would change Mary, that Mary would now understand her and grow closer, but Mary had burned, as remote as a salamander in a blazing exaltation of grief, seeming to draw energy from what should have devoured her, and when she emerged she had, it is true, changed, but she was no closer.

‘A waste of money,’ concluded Mrs Marsh. She looked almost with dislike at the strange woman in whom her little daughter was now subsumed. Not for the first time she mourned that daughter as though she were already dead.  (Kindle Locations 194-200).

The grief of mother and daughter is shown in harsh contrast.  The narration reveals Mary’s internal struggle to deal merely with day-to-day living much less the demands of the festive season,  while the quasi-heroic efforts of Mrs Marsh to cope with her self-inflicted Christmas is delivered in a series of farce-like events.  While Mary is self-absorbed, guilty about her inadequacies and cooperating with her mother only to avoid getting pestered,  Mrs Marsh is vain, snooty, condescending and irritating.  Yet there are moments when she elicits pity:

… Mrs Marsh […] wondered crossly if anyone but she knew what it was to love – how painful and tiring it could be. She wondered how Mary had loved Robin. She remembered how Robin had loved Mary, bounding at a photograph of her as a girl crying ‘Isn’t she lovely? Isn’t she beautiful?’, leaping through the door, not stopping to say hullo. Such extravagant behaviour. She wished she could tell Mary how much she loved her, but Mary wouldn’t listen . . .

She got up tiredly. She could cope with anything if people would be happy, would make an effort. Really, it seemed as if only she held all her world together.  (Kindle Locations 832-837).

She doesn’t recognise that Mary is struggling to hold her own world together, nor does she recognise the enormous effort being made by her other daughter Barbara, who is struggling to put on a brave face when her marriage is falling apart.  Sebastian, her husband, is having an affair with the wife of one of his university colleagues, and they have two tiresome children who are making things worse.

It is that tiresome adolescent son Sam, however, who identifies the fundamental problem in this family:

Sam and the university regarded each other with complete mutual incomprehension. It was inconceivable to Sam that anyone should wish to resemble or emulate his father or his father’s colleagues, and inconceivable to them that anyone should not. He could see dimly that they were irrevocably separated by the age-old human problem – everyone’s unshakable belief that everyone else either is, or wishes or deserves to be, like himself. Just as the healthy think the ill are malingering, so the ill think the healthy haven’t yet recognised their own symptoms; as the homosexual think the heterosexual are lurking in the closet, so the heterosexual think the homosexual can be ‘cured’; the old think the young desire their wisdom, the young that the old covet their youth, blacks that whites envy them their virility, whites that blacks wish to be white, the rich that the poor wish to be like them, the poor that the rich are like them, only richer and less happy. It all made for a great deal of needless fear and confusion, thought Sam with vague conviction.  (Kindle Locations 280-288).

The cast of characters includes a collection of neighbours either eccentric or dull, and the day descends into the sort of  chaos familiar from British sitcoms, only Mary remaining aloof from it all and eventually finding some quiet solace in the snow as evening falls.

Apropos of nothing at all, I was amused by this observation about teachers of English literature!

Teachers of English literature, on the other hand, though they tended to know nothing about anything except English literature – ‘engliterates’ his father called them – were sometimes a bit funnier – though on the whole they amused only themselves and one another. (Kindle Locations 330-332).

And I liked this too:

Mrs Marsh listened devotedly to the Queen’s broadcast.

The monarch let it be known that, among other things, it would give her, personally, much pleasure if people would stop killing each other. (Her son had recently made several uninformed and ill-advised comments on church matters, freedom of expression and the management of industry, while her consort frequently exhorted his wife’s subjects to pull out their fingers, cease their bloodymindedness, get off their backsides, and so on, in a simple, sailor-manly fashion.)

It would be better, thought Mary, if they were all to keep their jaws clamped firmly shut on the silver spoons with which they were born for the purpose.  (Kindle Locations 981-986).

Author: Alice Thomas Ellis
Title: The Birds of the Air
Publisher: Corsair, 2012, first published 1980
Source: Personal library, on the kindle.


Fishpond (pbk) The Birds of the Air;


  1. Except for audio books while I’m working, I don’t have time for well-written middle-brow books. Just Australian and Classics for me. But as for Princes Charles and Phillip I enjoy (as distinct from agree with) their opinions. They’re mostly silly enough not to be dangerous and what’s the point of a public platform if you can’t make use of it?


    • Hmm, yes, but (you’re talking to an avowed republican here) why does the media give them air? I don’t mean the slush media, I mean the ABC. They don’t give those Kardashian (sp?) people air and the royals are the Mrs Bucket/social climbers equivalent.
      The idea of that man Charles being our king makes me feel sick.


  2. This sounds excellent, thanks for your review. I know her name and was convinced I had read something by her but none of the titles on her wiki page sound familiar.


    • It was quite chastening for me to see all those novels she’d written and to realise that somehow I had missed out on reading her altogether in those years when she was so prolific.


  3. I didn’t think I was that harsh on Mrs Marsh. That probably says a lot about me.

    Thanks for the mention and I’m glad you enjoyed it. Ellis is a gem.


    • *chuckle* It could just be that having just lost my own mother, I am more tolerant of the faults of that generation that I might otherwise be…it will probably wear off…


  4. Ooh I love her and have read all of her stuff – that waspish and rather alarming eye for human foibles etc. I used to work at the publishers Gerald Duckworth. It was run by Colin Haycraft who was Alice TE’s husband. Her name was Anna Haycraft. I always found her rather alarming but maybe that’s because I had read her books. She and Colin were the people who ‘discovered’ and published Beryl Bainbridge, another writer I love.


    • Oh yes, I like Beryl Bainbridge too. I’ve read a couple of her novels but that was before I had this blog. She deserves a revival too.


  5. I am interested in reading this book after reading the two reviews by you and Guy. I have a perverse pleasure in reading about big family gatherings around Christmas. I also got a chuckle out of your responses above re Charles. I agree wholeheartedly. Thanks for my morning giggle and the recommendation of a good book.


    • LOL then you must read Susan Johnson’s one as well. You will love it!


  6. I loved this and I find the character of Mrs Marsh curiously sympathetic. I think I’m well on the way to it myself. Alice Thomas Ellis seems to specialise in family reunions that blow up – after I read Guy’s review I also read The Summerhouse Trilogy where an even more spectacular blowup occurs. She was an interesting personality, reminds me quite a lot of Muriel Spark.


    • Good, I’m glad we are simpatico on Mrs Marsh. I feel for Mrs Hyacinth Bucket as well…


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