After the Party by Cressida Connolly

When I saw the list of titles shortlisted for this year’s Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, After the Party was not one that particularly appealed to me but I have set myself a challenge of reading all of the shortlisted books since the prize began in 2010, so as my library conveniently had a copy available I brought it home and gave it a try.

The story is divided between two time periods. In 1938 we meet Phyllis Forrester, who has just returned to England with her husband and children after a long absence abroad. The narrative takes us through the events of that year and the wartime years which follow. There are also some sections set in 1979 with Phyllis looking back on that earlier time and on the choices and mistakes which led to her imprisonment. Yes, we know from the beginning that she has been to prison – but we don’t know exactly how or why that happened because the reasons are deliberately kept quite vague throughout most of the novel.

The 1930s storyline follows Phyllis as, back in England for the first time in three years, she occupies herself by helping her sister, Nina, to run a summer camp for young people. The camp is part of a new political movement which Nina and her husband are very enthusiastic about and they are hoping that the charismatic man they call ‘The Leader’ will visit at some point that summer. Unless I wasn’t paying attention, the name of this political group and its leader are rarely, if ever, mentioned in the book – certainly not until near the end, anyway – but with a little bit of knowledge of the period it’s easy enough to guess who they are.

If you believe that Phyllis is being honest with the reader, it seems that she has little idea of the true nature of the group or the values it represents. There’s a sense that her involvement has happened mainly because she has been at a loose end and looking for something useful to do to fill her days, and because she likes the idea of ‘belonging’ somewhere. For a while it all seems quite innocent; the main aims of the organisation appear to be to promote peace and avoid another war and it’s quite understandable that many people at the time would have supported those aims, with the horrors of the recent Great War fresh in their minds. Gradually, though, we start to see some uglier ideas being expressed and we can only assume that Phyllis must be aware of these views and agrees with them or at least can see nothing wrong with them. I thought it was quite an effective way of showing how people can become slowly indoctrinated into dangerous ways of thinking, something which is still as relevant today as it was in 1938.

I’m not sure how much sympathy we were intended to have for Phyllis but, although the circumstances of her arrest and the descriptions of her time imprisoned in Holloway are certainly horrible, I struggled to warm to her at any point, and I didn’t like any of the other people in her family and social circle either. They were the sort of people that, if I knew them in real life, I wouldn’t really want anything to do with; people who move in a world of snobbery and gossip, thinking they are better than everyone else. That was maybe the point – that the superiority and sense of status that these characters feel is partly why they are so open to the views of The Leader – but I didn’t particularly enjoy reading about them and their lives. I also felt that the incident at the party which is made to sound so dramatic in the novel’s blurb – the incident where Phyllis ‘lets down her guard for a single moment, with devastating consequences’ – was not as significant as it sounded and after reading so many pages waiting for that moment to come, it was an anti-climax when it did.

For the reasons above, this is not my favourite of the books I’ve read so far from this year’s Walter Scott Prize shortlist but I can see why it has been nominated as it’s a much more interesting and layered novel than I had initially thought it would be and one that left me with a lot to think about after reaching the end.

24 thoughts on “After the Party by Cressida Connolly

  1. whatcathyreadnext says:

    I felt exactly the same about this book as you. I thought it sounded great but it just didn’t live up to the promise. I didn’t think the ‘dramatic event’ was that pivotal either. Frankly, I was quite surprised to see this make the shortlist. So far, I’ve read Warlight and listened to The Long Take (still got to write my reviews though) and I’m part way through A Long Way From Home on audio. At the moment, my money would be on The Long Take just because it’s so different in its narrative style and the judges seemed attracted to that last year with The Gallows Pole.

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad it’s not just me who wasn’t very impressed with this one, Cathy. I did think it explored a lot of interesting ideas – it just didn’t work for me as a novel. The three books you’ve mentioned – Warlight, The Long Take and A Long Way From Home – are the three I still haven’t read yet! Let’s see if you’re right about The Long Take…not long to wait now!

  2. Judy Krueger says:

    I can see how the subject matter would be both interesting and disturbing. I think that sort of mental takeover, how it is done, the people it appeals to, is important to explore. Too bad the author did not quite pull it off.

    • Helen says:

      It’s a fascinating subject and yes, it’s important that books like this are written. I think it was mainly not liking any of the characters that put me off – although I can see why they were portrayed that way.

  3. Café Society says:

    I enjoyed this more than you did, Helen. For me the really important thing was the tone of the later interview. When Phyllis is sent to Holloway she really isn’t that committed to a movement that she still knows very little about. After the establishment has incarcerated her with people who are far more extreme than she is she becomes much more committed. I think this is really at the heart of what Connolly is interested in and very relevant to today.

    • Helen says:

      I think it was just a case of not being the right reader for this book. It’s probably not something I would have chosen to read if I hadn’t set myself the challenge of reading through the Walter Scott prize shortlists. I do think some of the ideas Connolly explores are fascinating – and, as you say, very relevant to the world today.

  4. heavenali says:

    This book was recommended to me quite recently, but it sounds as if it didn’t entirely work as it should have. The premise itself sounds interesting.

    • Helen says:

      You might enjoy it more than I did, so don’t let me put you off! It does explore a lot of important themes and there are some clear parallels with the modern day, which makes it even more interesting.

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad you’re interested in reading it. I didn’t enjoy it as much as I would have liked to, but it’s certainly a fascinating book which deals with some important and very relevant subjects. And yes, there were a lot of those movements in 1930s Europe – and of course they weren’t really peace movements at all, but something much more sinister.

  5. cirtnecce says:

    What a great review Helen. The blurb of the book does make it sound intriguing though I was not sure if this is my kind either. After your review, I think I will for sure hold off on this for now!

  6. whatmeread says:

    Gosh, you’re doing really well on this year’s list. I haven’t read any of them yet! Of course, some of them may be difficult for me to find here for a year or so. I am just beginning to be able to get some of the ones from last year. It sounds like this book must be about the wave of Fascism that was popular with some people on pre-WW II times.

    • Helen says:

      Thank you! This book wasn’t really for me, but if you’re interested in the Mitfords and Diana’s relationship with Mosley you might enjoy it more than I did.

  7. Davida Chazan says:

    Yes, well… a good premise isn’t enough, is it? Oh well… In truth, I’m beginning to think that these prizes, especially those that don’t accept indie published books, aren’t what they used to be.

  8. jessicabookworm says:

    Helen, when you listed the books that made the short list for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, I really liked the sound of this one. While I still like the premise, I think I would be put off by all the unlikeable characters. I prefer to have at least one person to root for lol. 🙂

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