At the beginning of After the Party, Phyllis Forrester tells us she was in prison. While inside, her hair turned yellowy-white, ‘like the mane of an old wooden rocking-horse’, not out of shock, she reassures us, but because ‘one couldn’t get one’s hair dyed’. She thinks she deserved to be there: ‘What I did was terrible. Terrible. The shame of it will never leave me until my dying day.’ For a long time in Cressida Connolly’s chilling new novel, though, it’s not clear what she has done.
The year is 1979, and middle-class Phyllis, who is bitter and alone (her family don’t talk to her any more), recounts her story to a voiceless interviewer in mannered, first-person chapters that interject throughout. We are then taken back to where it all began — the summer of 1938 — when Phyllis, her husband Hugh and their three children return to England after living abroad for a few years.
They stay with Phyllis’s sister Patricia in Sussex while they look for a house; another sister, Nina, runs a summer camp nearby (‘so many bods sharing a common feeling and purpose, coming together’) and persuades Phyllis and her children, who have nothing better to do in the school holidays, to join in with the ‘peace work’. Twenty-four years older than his wife and ill-suited to retirement, Hugh occupies himself with the ‘movement’, too. The cheery fun of these camps, however, turns out to be a smokescreen for promoting fascist ideology, and their ‘irresistible’ leader, known as ‘Old Man’ or ‘OM’, is Sir Oswald Mosley.
The book’s defining feature is its subtle way of showing how Phyllis becomes subsumed into this sinister world. In the words of one of her friends, she is ‘the nicest woman in England’ — unlike Patricia, a snob with ‘a double string of heavy pearls at her throat’, or the dinner-party guest who drunkenly coaxes a pig on to his roof and laughs when it falls off (‘the head had broken right open, like a coconut at a funfair’). She trusts Nina, who has always looked out for her, and believes that Mosley is simply trying to prevent another war in Europe and restore Britain ‘to greatness’. In a disturbing scene, Phyllis’s daughter Julia is caught painting the symbol of the British Union party and its slogan ‘PJ’ (‘Perish Judah’) on the wall of a theatre in Worthing. Phyllis is appalled by Julia’s inability to tell ‘right from wrong’, but Nina offers comfort: ‘This’ll blow over. I don’t believe anyone’s actually cross with Julia and the others for the doing of it... ’
A couple of years later, Phyllis does a ‘stupid, sordid thing’ herself, and is then interned when the government bans the British Union in 1940. Connolly’s visceral descriptions of Holloway prison are particularly memorable: Phyllis notices that ‘Something worse than dust — an almost oily dark film, a sort of sweated, acrid soot — lay over everything’. (It’s a pity that other details — such as stiff blankets and smoking cigarettes to stave off hunger — are given more than once.)
Connolly conveys the pathos of Phyllis’s situation but skilfully leaves us with a reminder that carelessness is not too remote from complicity.