IF HELL is a reflection of the human condition, then one of its mirrors here on earth must surely be the holiday assembly of people who drive each other crazy. The Birds of the Air shows the painful, funny results of an English Christmas when "relations who throughout most of the year had the sense to stay apart confined themselves in small spaces to eat and drink too much." It is a satirical, moving novel setting a woman's stubborn grief for her dead son against the sentiments and expectations of the season of peace and joy.

Family and friends of Mary Marsh gather at her mother's neat suburban cottage in Honeyman's Close, Innstead, a quiet community that equally decries messy pets and messy emotions. Their purpose is to cheer Mary, brooding and dreaming of her son, expecting nothing less than his return or her own death; but each has his own problems and exquisite inability to see the others' points of view. Barbara, Mary's sister, mourns the recent discovery of her husband's infidelity with a mixture of sorrow, anger, and confused determination to have her own affair with his publisher, one of the guests. Sebastian, her husband, an Oxford don who espouses human reason and dislikes most of mankind, despises his wife's nervousness and works in irritable silence on his book. Their son Sam is a touchingly vulnerable, thwarted idealist who slouches, slurs his speech, and dyes his hair green for the holidays; Kate, their precocious, smug daughter, has "an ego like the liver of a Strasbourg goose." The guests include well-meaning neighbors and an American stranded by the weather who also fail to understand the tensions and intentions of the others. Orchestrating the celebration is Mary's mother Mrs. Marsh, a compulsively orderly woman -- "she glanced round the room hoping to catch something in the process of untidying itself" -- who views with increasing alarm the unraveling of feelings and decorum in her house.

Although the situation is cleverly satirized, every one of these characters is recognizable, every motion familiar, every misapprehension and misunderstanding maddeningly inevitable. Ellis' characterizations are deft and devastating. She shows with stunning accuracy how people can live together day after day without knowing each other at all, their dreams and fears so out of line with the expectations of those around them that they can never be realized. The characters' perceptions are so different, they exasperate each other just by being themselves: "Mrs. Marsh beat around the house like a moth. Her movements, though disciplined and deliberate, were to Mary as irritating and alarming as the pointless vacillations of a large insect. She was flapping dusters over spotless surfaces, counterpanes over immaculate beds . . . Mary thought nostalgically of winding sheets, of linen ripped for bandages, of sails . . ." Ruthlessly Mrs. Marsh will perpetuate the idea of a healing Christmas, and just as stubbornly Mary will resist.

Mary and her mother represent sides of a contrast reinforced by the imagery in the book. Everywhere the human need for comfort and order, love and sense come up against the facts of loss and death and the little gods whom Mary believes in: "destructive, gleeful, purple-tongued and bloody-mouthed -- eternally mindless and beyond appeal." Mary rejcts the porcelain figures, teddy-bears and story books which in English households suggest that nature is cute and harmless. Instead she thinsk of the cuckoo's call which foreshadows bad luck, the way robins quarrel, and how only "the birds of the air" can adequately mourn her son, "and all the vast hordes of the dead." While Mrs. Marsh takes pleasure even in the greengrocer's, "secretly enjoying the smells of celery and damp paper and apples," Mary seeks out bare places and "the lifeless idle movement" of snow.

There is no resolution to this conflict. Mary's pain is unrelenting, almost heroic, and through her we see the bare bones of grief. The other characters show an array of less powerful human frailties and emotions resisting the aids of observation and sense. The Birds of the Air s honest about some incontrovertible facts -- that life can be a nuisance, that we do not always love our families, that people we love do die. It takes on life as it comes, even when we are helpless before it, evoking laughter, and certainly sorrow, but even at its saddest not despair.