Mary felt rather like someone for whom a marriage was being arranged by people who doubted the suitability of the match but could think of no seemly way of retiring. Her family and friends behaved like outsiders privy to a secret and dubious courtship, treating her with an arch, considered and wholly unnatural care, whispering together and falling silent when they remembered her sitting by the window and possibly listening. Mary Marsh has lost her only child, but rather than allow her peace in which to grieve, her mother cajoles her into participating in a proper family Christmas. As the various guests arrive, Mary's sister Barbara, Barbara's children and husband, Barbara's lover, Barbara's husband's lover ("the Thrush"), Vera and Dennis the neighbors, a grown cat and a kitten, the house descends into farcical chaos.
Behaving badly made Lydia feel better. She hoped she wasn't turning into one of those maniacs who murder people in order to establish their superiority over their fellows who say Please and Thank you and conform to the basic customs of society. Recovering from a love affair gone wrong, Lydia retreats to the Welsh countryside, leaving behind her sophisticated friends, but accidentally inviting Betty, "the human equivalent of sackcloth and ashes," as her companion. There they encounter Hywel, a dour farmer, Elizabeth, his nervous wife, the aspiring priest Beuno, Hywel's brother, and randy Doctor Wyn. Meanwhile Hywel's strange sister Angharad roams the land, observing all, while Lydia is increasingly unnerved by the unexplained laughter that comes down from the hills.
Five strangers gather at Eric's inn on a remote Hebridean island after he advertises in the London weeklies for "Christmas at the edge of the world." Harry, a military widower, is fascinated by General Gordon and the last days of Khartoum. Jessica is a voice-over artist and actress. Jon is a vain actor who is dangerously obsessed with Jessica. Anita, a salesperson in the stationary department of a store and, Ronald, a psychoanalyst who is pining for the cooking and domestic skills of his recently departed wife. Each has their own reasons for escaping the usual festivities, but the refuge of the island is complicated as Eric's wife Mabel flounces out at the last minute and the locals and visitors mingle and clash. A beautifully timed comic novel with a hint of the supernatural.