Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Last Minute Reveals: The Last Houseparty

The Last House-PartyDid everyone hear about that study a while ago by someone or other, that explained how spoilers don't really bother people and knowing the end of a book rarely diminishes one's enjoyment of it? Well, I hope it persuaded you, because it's rather pointless to talk about Peter Dickinson's The Last Houseparty without revealing most of the plot.  But the plot is the hanger for the story, not the story itself.

Dickinson's books immediately open a door into their settings, so that the character seem real and are doing exactly what they would be doing in exactly the place they are doing it.  It's fiction almost as documentary, where real footage shows what is happening, but only in the moments captured by the camera.  Whether he's recounting the events and people at the last houseparty of a politically ambitious hostess in the pre-war '30's, or the current affairs at the same estate over forty years later, with the current owner trying to make ends meet by opening the gardens and rooms to visitors, the conversations and thoughts of the people feel authentic and solid.

Slowly we learn about the mystery.  On the final evening of the house party, someone assaulted a little girl.  The next day, Vincent, the nephew and possible heir of the estate, disappears, but only after the famous clock work tower almost burns down.  A disgruntled employee gets the blame for the latter, but Vincent's flight makes him the assumed rapist in the minds of everyone except his closest friends.

Years later, an elderly man called Victor volunteers to help repair the clock work, to the delight of Sally, the current owner, and also the grown-up version of the little girl molested.  She has no real memories of that night, only recurrent nightmares, but also believes Vincent innocent because her step-father, Vincent's cousin, never believed him capable of such an act.  Sally tries to get Victor to admit to being Vincent, but he refuses to confirm anything despite strong evidence.  He does shed more insight into the past, pointing out that the fire and the attack have to connect someone, and helping Sally prove to her own mind the likelihood that the last lord of the estate probably committed both crimes.  Then, in the last pages, a further revelation puts the blame back on Vincent, leaving Sally bereft of faith in herself, her step-uncle, and her step-father.

It's very powerful stuff, but it doesn't really hold up.  The final twist has the fun of snapping unexpected cogs into place, but it's also contradicted by the emotional truths provided in the first half of the book.  The evidence remains circumstantial either way, with no real motivation for either crime.  Each scene works, but there is no real connection between them.  The intellectual fun of a tricky ending means the book loses almost all its emotional weight.  I think I prefer Dickinson's children's books better, where he doesn't let his mind overrule his heart.

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