After the Party by Cressida Connolly is set in a difficult period of British history. It starts gently, lulling you into a sense that it is about three sisters, which it is, but it is also an uncomfortable story of pre-World War Two politics. From the first page, we know that Phyllis Forrester was in prison. In 1979, Phyllis looks back cryptically at what happened to her and her sisters, Patricia and Nina, in the Thirties. Why she was imprisoned is the question that made me keep reading. All we know is that someone died.
In 1938, Phyllis and her husband Hugh return to live in England after years working abroad. They settle in West Sussex near Nina and Patricia. At a loose end, Phyllis is drawn into the peace camps organised by Nina; it is something to do over the summer, there are educational talks to attend and activities for the children. Nina is an organiser with a clipboard. Phyllis revels in their rented house at Bosham beside the sea, until Hugh buys a patch of land on which to build a house. At a dinner party thrown by Patricia, Phyllis meets a new friend, Sarita Templeton. “She said her ‘esses’ softly, so that ‘crazy’ sounded like ‘craissy’ and ‘is like ‘iss’.” Phyllis and Hugh are drawn into the circle of The Party, which the author has still not named. It is only the appearance of ‘The Leader’ or the ‘Old Man’ that tells us what we suspect, this is Oswald Mosley and The Party is the British Union of Fascists. Sarita does not appear much, but she is a key influence on Phyllis.
All is not well with the sisters, demonstrated by Connolly with concise words and a slight of hand. The three women have driven from Sussex to Buckinghamshire to visit their father who is in hospital after a fall, his future is uncertain as is that of their weak dependant mother. “Before they arrived at the hospital Patricia brought out her lipstick and compact and dabbed her nose with powder. Even from the back of her head Phyllis could tell that this small display of vanity was annoying to Nina. ‘Will I do?’ she asked Phyllis, turning her head. ‘No smudges?’ In actual fact she had applied the powder more thickly on one side of her nose, but Phyllis did not say so.”
The titular party is held by Sarita and Fergus Templeton. Sarita loves parties, Phyllis hasn’t been to one for years and Hugh, her husband, hates them. So a scene of conflict approaches, set amongst a background of Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists. Why is Phyllis in prison? Did she murder someone? One of her sisters? Her husband? Mosley?
This is not a thriller but there are obfuscations which are misleading, especially at the beginning, which affect the pace of the story and left the second half slower to read. Is the delay in mentioning Oswald Mosley intended to add tension, or because the author feared it may deter people from reading the novel? The light hand with which the British Union of Fascists is portrayed was difficult to read, partly because I never understood Phyllis’ motivation for joining The Party. She seems to drift into it, but could she really be that naïve? Much better I think to address it head-on rather than have Phyllis refer to ugly incidents in passing.
I expected to enjoy After the Party more than I did. Perhaps the time was so vile that writing about it in an entertaining way is impossible. The novel is awkward but perhaps that reflects the character of Phyllis, as she is our narrator. It does make you think ‘what would I have done if I was her?’ The ending, though is an anti-climax, given the stakes were raised so high on the second page. “Had it not been for my weakness, someone who is now dead could still be alive. This is what I believed and consequently lived with every day in prison.”
A thought-provoking novel.
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