21 January 2020

After the Party by Cressida Connolly

One of my favourite reads of 2018 was The Rare and the Beautiful.  A non-fiction book about the Garman sisters and their relationships with members of the artsy elite between the wars in London is fantastic.  When I found out that Connolly had a new fiction novel coming out I was interested to see if it would measure up.  Once again the focus is on sisters.

With dual timelines of 1938 and 1979, After the Party tells the story of Phyllis Forrester, her family and the events leading up to her incarceration at Holloway prison.  Unlike the usual path for most inmates, no charges or trial preceded her imprisonment.  A knock at the door followed by police rifling through cupboards and then a hurried push into a police car.  She's horrified to learn that her husband has been hiding a gun in the house.  Both Phyllis and Hugh have been identified as active members of Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists. 

After living in Belgium for several years while Hugh worked for British Rubber, the Forresters and their three children have moved back to Sussex.  Both of Phyllis's sisters have offered to house the family while they look for a new home.  Patricia is a middle-class snob, consumed by appearances and etiquette, whereas Nina is carefree but extremely busy running a camp.  In actuality, it is a camp for Party members.  During the summer it is portrayed as an outlet for summer fun but older children are given pamphlets to hand out while wearing Cadet uniforms.  It's all dressed up as jolly good family fun but the message is clearly the promotion of Fascist ideals.

One of my favourite things about the book is how authentic the restraint of certain characters comes across.  Which is not to say there is a lack of outbursts.  When Phyllis is certain about a dalliance between her husband and someone close to her, but bears it in silence, that sense of a stiff upper lip is portrayed brilliantly.  Many times, when the family is together, it is what's left unsaid that creates the most atmosphere.  And class, status, and labels are everywhere.  A slash of red lipstick on someone considered ever so slightly too young is enough to bring out the smelling salts. 

The more I read, the more it seemed that Phyllis was on the outside looking in.  Except with Jamie, a childhood friend from a working class family.  Playful visits were begrudgingly allowed but he was never going to be appropriate as anything more.   

The combination of sisters, familial conflict, and living in the countryside during World War II reminded me of The Cazalet Chronicles.  I didn't quite feel as though I was sitting in the midst of the room as I did with Elizabeth Jane Howard's sublime novels, but I did enjoy being back in an atmosphere reminiscent of it.  The subject of Mosley, and the inescapable connection with the Mitfords, has piqued my interest enough to do a bit more reading.  That biography on Diana that I found in a church book sale should do the trick.

There are a couple of ways to interpret the title.  After the party might refer to changes in Phyllis's life as a direct result of being involved in Mosley's politics, or a tragic event following a misunderstood encounter at an exclusive gathering.  Either way, I like that the interpretation is yours to decide.

   Oswald Mosley with members of the British Union of Fascists 

7 comments:

  1. I have been intending to read The Rare and the Beautiful and this sounds even more appealing. I also really enjoyed the Cazalet Chronicles. Have you also read Cynthia Harrod-Eagles' War at Home series? I like those also.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've never read anything by Harrod-Eagles but her books come across the counter at the library quite often. The pretty covers give the impression that they might be on the light side but I must stop judging a book by its cover! Thank you for the recommendation...I'll take a closer look the next time I come across a copy.

      Delete
    2. I suppose they are lighter than Cazalet but not a lot. The covers definitely play up the Upstairs Downstairs aspect. I have only read a few of her Morland series which seemed much more serious (and dismal). It is relief to read something well researched.

      Delete
  2. I read this last year and liked it but was a bit disappointed. The first half had so much potential and description and character development. The second half seemed rushed and not as fleshed out. But I did like all the domestic details and Phyllis is a great character.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's not an easy thing to tackle a story from WWII with the skill of some Persephone authors but I think Connolly should give herself a pat on the back. And oh yes...Phyllis, now there's a character to dish on during a book group talk!
      By the way, I'm SO excited about Square Haunting by Francesca Wade. My copy should be arriving in a few days. I know you keep your finger quite firmly on the pulse of books like this, but if you haven't heard about it yet, take a peek.

      Delete
    2. Yes, I have heard of Square Haunting and am also excited about it! It doesn't come out until April in the US so I might have to order in a copy from the UK - don't think I want to wait, haha.

      Delete
  3. Sounds excellent. Thanks for the review.

    ReplyDelete