Not Exactly a Review: After the Party, by Cressida Connolly
Pegasus, 2019. 272 pp. $26
Phyllis Forrester enjoys a sheltered life in 1938 Sussex, frightened only of her priggish, domineering husband, Hugh, and her two grasping, manipulative sisters, who live nearby. At a fancy-dress ball, the party of the title, Phyllis fails to protect a friend and suffers for it ever afterward — or so she says.
But the novel really concerns the Forresters’ support for a political movement that preaches “England first,” rejection of foreigners, and nonintervention in the European war that threatens. Students of that era will guess that it’s Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union, but Connolly, a subtle storyteller, doesn’t reveal that identifier right away. I suspect that before she pastes the Fascist label on her characters, she wants you to realize that they’re little different from people everyone has met, if perhaps more selfish or snobbish than most. Likewise, Phyllis’s refusal to examine or even admit to her spouse’s and siblings’ condescension and cruelty toward her evokes her inability to read fascism for what it is.
As political observation, After the Party has much to recommend it, especially the spare yet vivid portrayal of attitudes. As a novel, however, it frustrates me; and because explaining why involves spoilers, I suggest that anyone who plans to read the book should stop here.
The narrative actually begins in 1979, in Phyllis’s internal monologue looking back at the terrible event after the party and her subsequent imprisonment. When I read historical fiction, I like to lose myself in the past, so I avoid novels that feature a parallel, contemporary narrative (this one got in under my radar). But that’s not my beef here.
For those of you who don’t write novels, let me plead for those who do. One of the hardest decisions is where and how to begin, and if you choose wrongly, you can doom your narrative from the get-go. It sounds easy to fix or recognize, but it isn’t; just think of how many novels burden the narrative with too much backstory, too soon. In this case, Connolly’s prologue, which precedes a very long backstory, suggests that the party and Phyllis’s imprisonment are connected. In fact, they occur two years apart, and Phyllis later backs off her belief that she regards her prison time as just punishment for her mistake. Consequently, when you reach the party scene and realize there’s no connection, if you’re like me, you feel a letdown and wonder why the author thought she had to manipulate you with that prologue.
I think Connolly hopes to tie together disparate elements that don’t fit in the order they appear. If she does this to save her description of what makes a Fascist, that’s an idea, a theme, not a story, however interesting or cogent it might be. But two-thirds of the way through the book, after the war starts, Phyllis and Hugh are arrested and interned without trial or even legal counsel for having supported the British Union. That’s a story, especially because one of her sisters, active in the movement far longer, somehow remains free. Should the novel begin there, then? Maybe.
I can’t presume to know whether Connolly fell in love with her backstory and tries to save it through Phyllis’s occasional latter-day observations (which, incidentally, interrupt the forward narrative with privileged information). All I can say is that, as a writer, I’ve messed up enough novels by falling in love with backstory that either doesn’t belong or should go somewhere else. If I’ve learned my lesson, it’s because of the more than three hundred novels I’ve read so as to write in these pages. Many have prologues, yet only once do I recall an instance where that technique works — Andrew Hilleman’s World, Chase Me Down. And he succeeds not because he shows a crime, a high-wire act, a steamy love scene, or a courtroom verdict, teasing the reader with the mystery or romance to come. Rather, within the first lines, he establishes the sense of urgency that all compelling stories have — and if a novel lacks that, it doesn’t matter what the author dangles in your face to keep your interest.
Test this for yourself. The next time you start a novel, see whether you feel connected to the protagonist’s urgency about what makes this moment different, special, even earthshaking. I’m willing to bet that if you don’t feel this within the first five pages, you’re not likely to make it to page 50. And if you do read that far, it’s not because of a prologue.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher via Historical Novels Review, in which this commentary appears in a different, shorter form.