Monday 25 February 2019

Book review: After the Party, Cassie Hamer (2019)

It’s particularly difficult to write a review of a suspenseful book like this one because one thing you should not do as a reviewer is give away the story. This is a complex book that occupies a place that borders on several different genres. On the one hand it’s a crime thriller and on the other it’s a romance. But it has such good secondary characters that it has the feel of literary fiction as well.

At the core of the story is a middle-aged woman named Lisa who has two daughters, one named Ava who is aged five and one named Jemima who is aged three. Her husband Scott is a podiatrist and they live in the eastern suburbs of Sydney in a house with a garden out the back. All very well and good but where is the drama?

One day 33 children arrive to celebrate Ava’s birthday but when Lisa goes looking for the dog, who she thinks has just eaten the remains of his second birthday cake of the day, she finds a little girl of six in the kennel. Only 32 children had been invited. The concealed girl’s name is Ellie and she has a present for Ava which contains a note from her mother, who doesn’t identify herself in it. The note says that Lisa and Scott have to look after Ellie for a while so that she, Ellie’s mother, can go away to do something the nature of which she doesn’t disclose to the people she hopes can help her. She tells Lisa not to call the police. Lisa and her sister Jamie (who is two years younger than Lisa) had spent an unhappy period in foster care when their parents had died in an accident when they were young and before Lisa could become Jamie’s guardian, so Lisa decides, with Scott’s agreement, to give the mother six weeks before contacting the police. Mentioned in the note there is a threat of danger from some undisclosed source but Scott is eventually placated.

Lisa slams into gear immediately, enrolling Ellie in her daughter’s private primary school. She also conscripts new acquaintances to help her find Ellie’s mother. One of these women is Heather, who had helped Lisa out on the day of the party by organising an entertainer to come and look after the kids and by ordering a cake on short notice. Now, Heather introduces Lisa to a private investigator in an effort to find the woman they are looking for.

Meanwhile, Jamie and Jared, Jamie’s long-term boyfriend, are planning to get married but Jamie one day at work accepts a kiss from Ben, her assistant at the office. Jared is planning to move with work to Dubai within a short period of time and Jamie gets into gear to get their wedding organised so that the two of them can get married before the time comes to leave Sydney. But Jamie finds out that Angel, her boss, had wanted to retire and make Jamie managing director of her PR agency, which is called Spin. Meanwhile, the missing mum, whose name is Missy Jones, travels north by train to Coffs Harbour, where she meets her own mother. The two women talk unnoticed in a carpark, where Missy’s mother mysteriously gives her some money and the key to a rental car.

This work of fiction has an intricate plot that is for the most part very robust (one event stood out in my mind that challenged to a degree the reader’s faith in the story). The novel also has a strong forward movement. Both these things mean that the book is unashamedly a genre novel, but the narrative material that is used to flesh out the spaces between signal events is also very sensitively crafted. The way that the author keeps things moving smoothly and purposefully does not eliminate the possibility for poetry, which appears at unexpected moments to enrich the experience for the reader. Different chapters are focalised through different characters, which adds to the suspense that you feel while reading the book. But even given the quality of its plotting and the excellent pacing that enlivens it, many of the thrills you get from it come from small things, from messages like how important it is to have a happy home life where children can thrive, and the necessity for love to come before marriage.

In terms of ideas, there are things going on beyond the major theme of domestic violence that animates the story in various ways. The dynamics that characterise relations that develop between Jamie and Ben and between Angel and Jamie underscore the importance to the author of having strong female characters in her story. Jamie’s ability to think quickly under pressure makes her quite different in some ways from her sister. Lisa, who works at home doing accountancy work for private clients now that she has children, tends to crumble when she’s under the pump, and so Heather functions as a competent foil for her. Angel, who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, sees Jamie’s potential as a leader. For the most part this is a book about women. Scott is quickly sketched in. Jared gets more attention but his significance depends on how he will function to give Jamie what she wants (which includes children).

I particularly liked the way Heather gave life to every scene she was in. She’s a creation of comic genius, a kind of Patsy Stone (the Joanna Lumley character in the British sitcom ‘Absolutely Fabulous’) who with complete unflappability quickly understands every situation that appears in the world around her as well as the solution to whatever problem exists (with the possible exception perhaps of her own). Angel, too, is a very strong character, as is the principal of St John’s, Ms Valentic. All of these characters serve in different ways to give the story depth and to impart relevance to small details that are needed to keep it chugging along. Even Lisa’s daughters have their own personalities and the characterisation used for Ellie, who is very sensible and mature for her age, is immensely appealing.

There is one scene in the novel where Heather and Lisa gather with some other women, in a cafĂ© named Speakeasy that is located near St John’s, to discuss Lisa’s predicament. It’s an interesting scene that functions as a kind of emblem of the whole story in a single, neat package, and that refracts its major themes in a concentrated form and with a striking intensity because it shows that the author is aware of what she is doing as she spins her tale, in fact she is so aware of it that she can do this little trick with light and dialogue and a few careful words. The way the women talk among themselves when they meet there precisely illustrates why this kind of novel is so interesting to women. Why women gravitate to genre fiction, to crime and to thrillers. The group of women talking represent the rest of the city, the rest of the country, the rest of the world. They swap stories and dig into surmises and test hypotheses with a delight that implies the kinds of feelings that genre authors specialise in, if they are good at what they do. The scene shows how serious Hamer is as an author. It demonstrates her command of her material and it proves that genre can be as good as good literary fiction (obviously, not all literary fiction is good) if done well.

Whatever kind of novel you enjoy reading, this one won’t disappoint. The author casts a wry glance over the landscape and her story charts familiar routes across the face of a vividly-realised Sydney, a city with plenty of secrets that, nevertheless, given the right conditions (e.g. a good husband), can provide the kind of safety and opportunities that people need to have a good life.


Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this review - having just read the book myself. I can completely relate to what you say about it!!! thanks for your insights. I agree it is extremely well written and it is nice to have a book that can take you on more than one journey as it crosses genres so deftly. Very enjoyable!

Matthew da Silva said...

Thanks for the comment. I have to admit that my interest in this book was particularly piqued when I read somewhere that the author was a fan of the short stories of Cate Kennedy, which I love.