This was a surprising book – not the story I thought I was going to get, but all the more interesting for it. Rather than being simply a Gatsby-esque exploration of beautiful lives being ruined by scandal (don’t get me wrong – I love that sort of story), this becomes something far more political and tragic.
When Phyllis’ narrative starts in 1979 with ‘when I came out of prison my hair was white,’ the duration of her imprisonment is still undetermined. For a significant part of the novel, we know what will happen to her, but not why, and the early sections of the novel are played out in the late 30s, a setting ripe for drama and pathos on a grand scale. The later sections, narrated by Phyllis herself as a response to an unnamed correspondent, look back on a time of naivety, both personal and political. Connolly does a marvellous job of creating a sympathetic character who turns out to be on the wrong side of history. For Phyllis, mild and reserved though she is, has also been an ardent supporter of Oswald Mosley.
This is where the novel breaks from what I had thought might become a story of dangerous passions and their consequences, something suggested when Phyllis confides, ‘Had it not been for my weakness, someone who is now dead could still be alive,’ at the end of the first chapter. Instead, the novel moves into the details of what happened to those who supported the British Union of Fascists, and who were imprisoned without trial for the duration of the war. The suspension of human rights is often absent from the narrative of patriotic wartime Britain, and so this was a very interesting addition to the many novels set in this period. Connolly is superb at the detail, at creating characters who are later forced to revaluate their actions. The personal cost of backing the wrong leader are made all too clear here. A fascinating read.