One of the joys of a physically small library outlet is that the library system’s books tend to rotate around the whole system, so browsing the shelves offers the opportunity for surprises. Another joy of using a library rather than buying books is that one finds “old” books that have disappeared from the shelves of the mega bookstores. Alice Thomas Ellis’ The Birds of the Air was one such find in my local library. In fact, finding the Penguin on the shelf was my introduction to Alice Ellis Thomas. By the time I was a few pages into the book, I was asking myself how I had managed somehow to miss this writer when she was publishing. I realised that when she first published in the late seventies, I was not exactly bogged down but certainly immersed in graduate work and was not reading contemporary fiction very much.
At only 152 pages, The Birds of the Air might more accurately be designated a novella rather than a novel. Nevertheless, it has left me with a taste for more Alice Thomas Ellis. In an appropriate synchrony, I read it over the Christmas period, the setting for the work.
Widowed Mrs Marsh has her daughter Barbara, her professor son-in-law and grandchildren to stay with her in her neat little suburban house for Christmas. She has great hopes for the season, but things cannot go well. Barbara has just discovered her husband Sebastian is having an affair and therefore has hopes for a fling of her own. Mrs. Marsh’s other daughter Mary is permanently ensconced in the dining room, now given over entirely to her use, unable to recover from the death of her own son. Barbara’s son Sam is rebelling against the atmosphere and expectations of life as the son of an Oxford don and is frantically practicing his glottal stops and has dyed his hair green. Sam’s sister Kate insists on displaying her own precocious intellectualism to anyone who will listen to her recite poetry. Into this family gathering come the neighbour and amateur painter Evelyn, bringing with her the gift of a probably feral and certainly hardly weened kitten for Mary; Hunter, Sebastian’s editor accompanied by Sebastian’s American editor Otis Mauss who has been stranded in England because of snow; and the next-door neighbours, a retired Chief Inspector of police Denis and his wife Vera. Despite Mrs. Marsh’s hopes and plans, things are doomed to chaos.
All the elements are here that could lead to farce, but they don’t. Ellis’s control of her omniscient narration reminds one of Austen. Her subtle wit, as finely honed as a scalpel for cosmetic micro-surgery, her observation of the milieux inhabited by her characters is mordantly accurate. I particularly enjoyed her description of Barbara and Sebastian’s party focalized primarily through Barbara and Sam: Barbara anxious and distressed at the discovery of her husband’s infidelity, and Sam burdened with adolescent angst and torn between rebellion and actually being quite a “prudish child” (31). Not only does Ellis expose the familial tensions with surgical precision, she also turns her eye on the anxious posturings of academia and on the petty frailties of middle class society. How similar are Oxford and Honeyman’s Close, Innstead, in their anxieties, their little snobberies, and their comforting deceits and hypocrisies. There’s little difference between the “frail old don speaking in exaggerated patrician accents by which he had not come honestly (all his relations had remained down their native pit)” (29) and Evelyn whose “father having been a bank manager, . . .was qualified in such extreme circumstances to give orders to a mere policeman’s wife” (150).
One of the aspects of Englishness that Ellis captures so well is its embarrassment when confronted with any overt expression of faith. When Mary proposes a toast to God because “‘It’s his birthday,’. . . Nearly everyone was shocked” (138), and Mrs. Marsh “avoided all mention of Catholicism in public, considering it, even after her years of marriage to her dear John, not quite nice.” The tense situation is resolved by the Chief Inspector’s raising his glass to the queen (138). “How typically English,” you say. Precisely. Ellis captures the little details that reveal so much.
Just as she mocks the social restrictions the characters place on themselves, so, too, does Ellis focus on the emotional. What Ellis captures so perfectly is human emotional frailty and blindness, but even as she notes and even sometimes ridicules human weakness, her gaze no matter how piercing is compassionate. In its broken, faltering way, Mrs. Marsh’s family do love and care for each other, but they cannot express that love. Mrs. Marsh “didn’t dare tell her daughter outright that she loved her, since Mary was ill and might be frightened” (13). The Birds of the Air is above all a story of love and loss, having roots in Ellis’s own grief over the death of her son, Joshua, “who sang and sprang and moved/Now, in death, is only loved” (Dedication Page). The work’s title, taken from Matthew 6:26, reminds us of our value, reminds us of something beyond ourselves. Ellis concludes the novel with Mary standing in the falling snow, grieving her lost son.
Given Ellis’s strong Catholicism, it is hard not to make the connection between another Mary who grieved for a lost son and hard not to consider the implications of what Ellis as a Catholic believed of the love inherent in the death of that son. However, while the novel could be said to be a work based in faith, its purpose is not to prosletyse. Mary, however, in her grief is at the centre of the novel just as her occupation of the dining room puts her and her grief at the centre of the house. Ellis’ handling of some of her descriptions is extremely lyrical and when we look carefully we see that these passages are Mary’s consciousness. Ellis suggests there is beauty in grief, but, as I said earlier, the novel ends with Mary standing in the falling snow, melancholy, despairing, even longing for death, inconsolable.
There is consolation for the reader, however, in the concentrated detail of the work, in its lightness of touch, and in its acute observation and empathy.
This post has focussed primarily of the broader scope of the novel’s ideas. There is much to be said about Ellis’s handling of repeated motifs such as windows, cats, birds, bears; about her fluid shifts among focalizers, about her choice of names. I could go on.