Emma Schofield reviews The Party Wall, the latest offering from one of Wales’ most prolific contemporary novelists, Stevie Davies, and finds a story packed with intrigue, psychological tension and human emotion.
‘You can never tell people what happened. What happened is locked up inside, there is no way in and no way out.’ There are many reasons why Stevie Davies’ latest novel, The Party Wall, will strike a chord with anyone who has spent time in lockdown this year, but Davies’ ability to create a sense of intensity and isolation is certainly a key part of that. Focusing on the lives of neighbours who live in tightly packed terrace houses overlooking a small green, Davies invites us to take a glimpse into the dangers of spiralling thoughts and uninterrupted fixations in a read which starts by applying a gentle hold to its readers, but draws you in until becomes entirely gripping.
Thankfully, for the majority of us, that is where the similarities between our own experiences and those of the characters in The Party Wall ends. The novel centres on Mark, who spends his life in an increasingly obsessive state, fixating on the movements of his next door neighbour, Freya. As the novel opens we find Mark listening intently through the wall which adjoins their terraced houses, eavesdropping on Freya’s final moments with dying husband Keir. Davies’ own skills are beautifully on display here, employed to convey the sheer intrusiveness of Mark’s decision to listen in to this final exchange between husband and wife. Yet as Mark presses himself to the wall in order to catch every movement and sigh from the house next door, before pushing himself to the fore of events at Keir’s funeral, there is light relief in the way events are narrated. Davies is one of an elite group of writers who is able to bring a wry humour even to the midst of such bleak scenes. Who hasn’t been present at a funeral where someone has said more than they probably should have? Davies captures the awkwardness of these moments superbly in her writing, balancing them against Mark’s increasing frustrations as his attempts to personally console Freya are thwarted by her large and imposing brothers-in-law.
The novel is something of a slow burner in some of these early scenes, but does reward those who persist. As the chapters unfold the intensity of Mark’s feelings grow and his intentions towards Freya become increasingly dark. There is something uncomfortable about the way Freya comes to rely on the neighbour who purports to be offering her support, while he is also simultaneously manipulating every aspect of her life through his position on the other side of their shared wall and his increasingly frequent interventions into her life. As the tension in the novel builds, the boundaries between reality and the thoughts in Mark’s head become increasingly blurred, building towards a shocking ending.
Alongside this drama, this is a novel which doesn’t shy away from addressing the pain, confusion and lasting-effects of losing a loved one. Both Mark and Freya find themselves at different stages of the grieving process, occasionally colliding, emotionally, in their struggle to move on with life after the death of a spouse. In spite of this emotional struggle, there is an undercurrent of danger running through the novel as Mark’s obsession with Freya grows to an alarming level and the pair find themselves caught in a frenzied and increasingly toxic relationship. All the while, the houses in which they live resonate with memories of the past and its inhabitants, further entrapping Mark and Freya and preventing either of them from being able to move on with their lives in any meaningful way. As chilling revelations from Mark’s past gradually emerge, we learn that this is not the first time he has sought to cover up the pain of the past by coercing a woman into a relationship controlled and contrived entirely by him. The further we glimpse into Mark’s infatuation with Freya, the more we uncover about what happened to his late wife and his connection to the woman who is currently living in the home he used to occupy with his wife.
It is in this frustrated dance between the past and the present that the quality of Stevie Davies’ writing really shines through. Her ability to weave a story which so easily captures the intensity of Mark’s feelings and the way in which he and Freya are drawn to each other in differing ways is both enjoyable to read and testimony to Davies’ experience as a storyteller. While the obsessions felt by Mark and his plans to ensnare Freya are central to the plot, Freya’s own voice is not lost, her sense of confusion and grief palpable in the sections of the novel recounted by her and in the way she unwittingly permits Mark to manipulate her. This is a woman who has found herself fragile and broken following the death of the man she loved, now held captive by the physical confines of her home and the emotional walls build around her by her scheming neighbour. The novel serves as a reminder of the effects of trauma and the often contradictory thoughts which can surface in times of desperation and grief.
Davies’ use of internal space is also worthy of note here. The imagery of the party wall, the physical partition which separates each of the residents within the terraced houses, is well-used throughout as a metaphor for the artificial divide between lives which exists within this seemingly tight-knit community. The proximity between each of the neighbours’ lives is conveyed through the suffocating way in which Mark is able to infer the most intimate of details through the walls between their houses, while the wall offers the illusion of a greater sense of separation and privacy than really exists within their lives. It is against this backdrop that Mark is able to learn everything he needs about his neighbour, carrying out his plans to hold others at bay and infiltrate Freya’s life, with her remaining seemingly unaware of the level of intrusion into her life.
A former Booker Prize longlisted author and Wales Book of the Year Award winner, Davies is no stranger to writing novels which capture readers’ attention and it would be no surprise to see The Party Wall secure similar accolades. The subtleties of the writing, combined with the steadily building psychological tension which characterises the novel make this a challenging and exciting read. The final scenes may raise some eyebrows and certainly leave a number of questions unanswered, nevertheless The Party Wall has much to offer those who follow the story through to its explosive conclusion.
The Party Wall is available now from Honno Press.
You might also like…
John Lavin nominates the intense and poetic Awakening, Stevie Davies’ twelfth novel, for Wales Arts Reviews’ Greatest Welsh Novel.
Emma Schofield is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.