Saturday, 4 December 2010

'The Birds of the Air' - Alice Thomas Ellis

If you are looking for some Christmas reading then you could do a lot worse than Alice Thomas Ellis's The Birds of the Air. All the constituents of a traditional British Christmas are there - family arguments; embarrassingly drunk relations; the Queen's speech - but there is also a lot of comedy too, especially once you get beyond the first fifteen pages.

The Birds of the Air was written at a time of great personal anguish for its author. Her nineteen-year old son, Joshua, had recently fallen off the roof of Euston Station while trainspotting and died and yet grief does not overwhelm this novel. Indeed what is most striking about it is how funny it is.

Arguably the book's most interesting character is Mary Marsh who, like Ellis, was struggling to come to terms with the loss of her son. Though she shuts herself away in her room, she is also given a strange freedom by her grief. No longer obliged to maintain social niceties, she says what she thinks, thinks what she likes, and does what she wants. On one level she is not coping (to use a verb neither she nor Ellis would have had much time for) but, on another level, she is the most lively and amusing of all the characters in the book.

What keeps her going is the hope, or even expectation, of the resurrection. Besides this great hope, ordinary life seems utterly petty and irrelevant and so humour, and satire in particular, begins to seem like a perfectly reasonable response to the tragedies of life. And this book, which is very much in the tradition of Waugh, Spark and O'Connor, is very funny.

Mrs Marsh, Mary's mother, is a wonderful comic creation. She is a quintessential busybody who is torn between wanting to keep her family together and wanting to keep her suburban house clean and tidy. She is quite upset when her children leave "the washing-up brush on the wrong side of the sink" and when a neighbour suggests that she draw up a little list to help her prepare for Christmas she replies, "I could paper the kitchen with little lists."

The social satire is wonderful: both academia and suburbia are roundly mocked but Ellis also targets other quintessentially British institutions: "Winnie the Pooh vied with the Queen (God trailing in the distance) for the forefront of the mind of the English middle class," she writes. We don't get much Winnie the Pooh in The Birds of the Air but the Queen, the royal family and Church of England bishops are mercilessly satirised.

Ellis captures the tone of the Queen's speech perfectly when she writes that, "the monarch let it be known that, among other things, it would give her, personally, much pleasure if people would stop killing each other."

However, there is more to this short novel than mere social satire. The Catholic faith of Mrs Marsh's dead husband hovers on its edges, even though Mrs Marsh herself, "as a rule, ... avoided all mention of Catholicism in public, considering it, even after her years of marriage to her dear John, not quite nice."

In particular it is impossible to forget Jesus's words, "Behold the birds of the air, for they neither sow, nor do they reap, nor gather into barns: and your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are not you of much more value than they?" because birds hover over every aspect of the book. You cannot escape them: every type of bird, every type of avian pun, is here. The birds are a constant reminder to Mary (and Ellis herself) that she will see her son again.

‘There is no reciprocity," Alice Thomas Ellis once said in a newspaper interview. "Men love women. Women love children and children love hamsters." The love of women for their children lies at the heart of this novel but the love of God for men, women, children and, I suppose, hamsters lies even deeper.

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