Imagine a time before student loans, when tuition fees were paid by the government. This is the world of Linda Grant’s latest novel, Upstairs At The Party.
The novel is an attempt by the main character, Adele, to look back over her life and make some sense of who she has become and why :
‘If you go back and look at your life there are certain scenes,acts,or maybe just incidents on which everything that follows seems to depend. If only you could narrate them, then you might be understood. I mean the part of yourself that you don’t know how to explain.’
Like Grant, Adele is born into a Liverpool Jewish family not long after the end of the second world war. From her grandfather she learns the value of telling a story :
That is the power of stories, never forget: they make like truth.
Adele uses her story telling skills to wangle herself a place at one of the ‘new’ universities recently opened in an attempt to extend access to higher education. From there she is catapulted into a world very different from her working-class Jewish roots :
‘We were a tiny oasis of unreality in a world that itself is semi forgotten, a time when the university computer took up a whole building and was tended by maths students in white lab coats. On the other hand, we were, I suppose, pioneers of environmentalism , chewing indigestible substances – brown rice, brown bread, brown sugar – while our parents still ate processed cheese and instant mashed potato and thought it was Progress. A few of us really did hug trees.’
It is the beginning of the Women’s Liberation Movement, consciousness-raising and vegetarianism. Nothing could be further from her home life. She meets a whole array of seemingly glamourous and sophisticated friends including the enigmatic couple Evie and Stevie.
This is the section of the novel that worked best for me. The period is so vividly imagined that I could almost smell the damp musty student houses and I was convinced that I had known some of the characters at Uni .
An event upstairs at her party informs the rest of Adele’s life and the ripples follow her long after university is over.
This is a brave and complex novel in which the characters develop, grow and change. It is only as she gets older that Adele can see the ‘event’ and the people involved for what they really were. Her maturity brings her to realise that life is just a series of chance occurrences over which we have limited control :
‘ I hate the feeling of determinism . I like the illusion of free agency that the university gave us. But there is no avoiding what might have happened had I not run into Stevie that day outside the library, not gone against my will to the flat and met George.’
It also forces her to reassess the women of her mother’s generation that she had been so desperate to get away from :
‘…the women in their gashes of lipstick and frosted eyeshadow, parade past me and turn and look and smile the bitter triumphant smiles of women who have not surrendered to or been defeated by death.
I wonder if we have done half as well, and how much longer it will take to learn all their lessons.’
This is a bold work that I have thought about long after finishing. At times it is very moving but there are enough witty and insightful observations on life and relationships to keep it from ever becoming maudlin.
Upstairs At The Party is published on 3rd July. Thank you to Virago for the review copy.