Facing a holiday season without the usual parties is going to be tough, but this is where a great novel comes into its own. Faber’s timely reissue of Brigid Brophy’s ornate and operatic 1964 masterpiece, The Snow Ball, will transport you to a decadent New Year’s Eve masquerade ball in an opulent Georgian mansion. Something of a scandalous sensation when it was first published – “sheer artistic insolence”, is how Brophy’s lover Iris Murdoch described the novel – it conjures up a night of extravagance and excess. Although set contemporaneously, the guests are adorned in historical costumes: a sea of powdered wigs as far as the eye can see. Peppermint creams fall like confetti from the minstrels’ gallery above the ballroom, and the air thrums with sexual tension as the party-goers find themselves caught up in a heady vortex of the pleasures of the flesh. There will also be a dead body to deal with come morning.
The action skips and spins between the assignations of three couples. From the comfort of marital, middle-aged affection through the excitement and experimentation of first love, to the grand passion of a coup de foudre, Brophy traverses the rich gamut of romance and eroticism.
There’s Anne, the party’s hostess, who, in the middle of the merriment, slips away from her guests with her husband. Teenage Ruth – “tall, bony but large-limbed”, who is “perhaps going to be beautiful” – hides in corners, eager to record in her diary her impressions of her first ball, “to have exact record of how felt at time: b/se am sure most people falsify when they remember such things afterwards”. And finally, there’s the grand seduction that lies at the heart of the drama; that between Anne’s friend Anna (dressed as Mozart’s Donna Anna) and the masked, mysterious, black-clad Don Giovanni. From their first kiss – “not socially but on the lips, gently and erotically, then with a voluptuous fluttering, and at last with a violent and passionate exploration” – through the mounting flirtation of their sharply observed dialogue, their tryst culminates in lushly described orgasmic delights: “Suffering, sobbing, swelling, sawing, sweating, her body was at last convulsed by the wave that broke inside it.”
When Don Giovanni asks Anna what she thinks about, “Mozart, sex and death” is her reply; three words that could also be said to sum up this swirling, sumptuous, sensual feast of a book.
• The Snow Ball by Brigid Brophy is published by Faber (£9.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15.