Wednesday, 15 August 2018

After the Party by Cressida Connolly

Reviewer: Barbara Scott Emmett – author of Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion, The Man with the Horn and other books. http://barbarascottemmett.blogspot.com

What We Thought: Before reading After the Party, I would never have imagined I could feel sympathy for someone who had espoused a far right cause. This book is so sensitively written, however, that it is impossible not to feel sadness for the protagonist, and to recognise that she is embroiled in something, the potential consequences of which, she doesn't fully understand.

Phyllis Forrester is the youngest of three sisters. In 1938 they are all living, in various states of prosperity, in the south of England. Phyllis has three children, two girls and a boy, all about to go back to boarding school.

Through her middle sister, Nina, she becomes involved in a political party, the leader of which is simply referred to as The Leader. At first she is not especially interested in the cause but as she has little to do she helps her sister out. Her eldest sister, Patricia, is also involved but to a lesser extent. Patricia and her husband, Greville, are at the upper end of the social scale, Phyllis and Hugh are perhaps slightly below, and they both think Nina and her husband, Eric, are a little infra dig, as he runs a garage and she runs summer camps for members of the Party and their children. Patricia invites The Leader, or the Old Man, as he is sometimes called, to a grand dinner and a certain amount of vying for his attention is involved.

Though the Leader is not specifically named until some way into the novel, it is soon obvious who he is. He is charismatic and charming and his followers all adore him. Phyllis meets Sarita through her association with the Party and they become friends, though Sarita is often a little vague and distrait. When disaster strikes, Phyllis feels guilty that she had not seen the truth of the situation and had not been able to step in to help.

When war breaks out Phyllis and her husband are unexpectedly taken into custody. There is no trial and no formal sentencing. Separated, they are given little information as to what is going on or where the other is. Phyllis feels that her incarceration is in some way justified - not because of her association with the Party but because she let her friend down.

Years pass. Phyllis is sent to a camp on the Isle of Man along with other politicos and enemy aliens. She discovers another way of life, of friendships with women, of making do and of overcoming hardships. She misses her children desperately. When she is finally released they barely recognise her, and the youngest, Edwin, has become attached to Patricia and Greville, who have taken him in every school holiday.

Betrayed by both her sisters for different reasons, and in reduced circumstances, Phyllis moves north. Her children blame her for her involvement in what is now considered a wicked cause, and she has little contact with her wider family. She has become, perhaps sardonic rather than bitter, and quite apart from seeing the misjudgement in her earlier associations, has become rather more deeply entrenched in her views.

This is a beautifully written book, full of poignancy and sadness. It shows how lives can be destroyed by happenstance and by foolish errors of judgement and how, ultimately, no lessons may be learned.

I received a free ebook from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Great Gatsby

Avoid If You Dislike: Accounts of the privileged classes.

Perfect Accompaniment: Whisky in cut glass with an engraved cigarette case nearby.

Genre: Literary fiction

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