THE LAST HOUSEPARTY by Peter Dickinson
Kirkus Star


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Again, as in A Summer in the Twenties, Dickinson blends charm and politics in a blithe British period-piece; but this time the pre-WW II evocation is just one fragment of a slight, clever flashback-and-forward puzzle. In 1980, Miss Sarah Quintain, owner of the impoverished Snailwood estate (open to the paying public), agrees to let an old mechanic named Mason work on the estate's famous, long-broken tower clock. And suddenly we're back in June of 1937--when Snailwood was even more famous for the weekend parties hostessed by scintillating Zena, second wife of the last Earl. Among those at this one particular weekend ""superduper-do"": the Earl's two nephews, shy Victor (the athletic, mechanical sort) and charismatic cousin Harry (political, literary); a pro-Germany political leader; a fox-trotting Zionist professor; an Arab princeling; and the Snailwoods' pretty new secretary Joan, a divorcee (with young daughter Sally) who immediately wins Harry's adoration. Something terrible is going to happen during this weekend of political chat and splendid dancing: that much is made clear in teasing flash-forwards. But the details come together with sly slowness--as we figure out that 1980's Miss Sarah Quintain is 1937's little Sarah (who, it appears, was molested that weekend). . . and that mechanic Mason might just be Victor, who, accused of the attack on Sally/Sarah, permanently disappeared during World War II! Who really molested Sally? And who set the clock-tower on fire that same weekend? Was it really sweet, shambling Victor? Or was it that kinky pro-German politico? Or the Arab prince? Or the Earl himself? And was there some connection to the nascent political career of Victor's beloved cousin Harry (who would soon marry secretary Joan and leave Snailwood to step-daughter Sally)? The puzzle itself, as it happens, is a rather mild one. And the ultimate secret involves an implausible bit of on-the-spot political consciousness-raising. But Dickinson, instead of leaning on this fragile kernel of plot, fragments it so intriguingly and decorates it so generously (with gardens, with clock-works, with quirky characters galore) that curiosity and delight are maintained, beautifully balanced, throughout. In sum: an ever-elegant writer's best book in quite some time.

Pub Date: Oct. 12th, 1982
Publisher: Pantheon