Book Review :Upstairs At The Party

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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.

 

 

 

Book Review : A Song For Issy Bradley

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Early in Carys Bray’s debut novel ,the Bradley family suffer a tragedy and what follows is a gradual unravelling of life as they understand it.

The Bradleys are Mormons. Father, Ian, is a bishop and has an unwavering belief in the creed of the Church. Claire, his wife, wasn’t born a Mormon , we discover that she met Ian whilst at university and converted to marry him. In grief she begins to question the way of life she has adopted whist Ian is convinced his faith can carry the family through the crisis.

Alma, their eldest son and known at school as Al, dislikes being different. He is embarrassed by his family and desperate to conform and properly belong to the football team. He trains with them but his father refuses to pay the FA registration so he can’t play in matches. At the beginning of the novel he is detailed to welcome guests to the birthday party for his little brother :

‘ It always feels weird when ordinary people come round ; the picture of Jesus in the hall seems to double in size and Al feels like an outsider, someone who has grown up in the country of the house without managing to learn its language. A few of the kids’ mums offer to stay and help but he says, ‘No thanks”. A house full of non-member women expecting forbidden cups of tea would make Mum even more pissy.’

Jacob, the youngest son, is determined to bring about a miracle to make the family well again.His Church teaches him that this is possible and his belief is strengthened by the ‘resurrection’ of his goldfish – in fact a replacement was bought as nobody realised Jacob had noticed the goldfish was dead. Jacob’s zealous pursuit of the miracle ironically serves to highlight the family’s plight as his behaviour increasingly causes concern at school.

It was the character of Zippy, the eldest daughter, that I found the most endearing. She is trapped in a belief system that can see nothing more for her than marriage. Whilst her family falls apart she is trying to negotiate the tricky teenaged path of sex, love and identity and finding that the Church does not really  provide  her with answers.

‘ Girls who choose to be modest choose to be respected. If you check your clothes everyday before you go out you will never be walking pornography. I’m sure none of you want to be responsible for putting bad thoughts into men’s heads. Please think about the men, ‘ Sister Campbell said.

So Zippy did. She thought about the men; with Adam’s thigh pressed up against hers and his warm fingers rubbing her arm it was hard to think of anything else.’

All this may sound more than a touch cheerless but there is humour here too. Sent to help ‘Brother Rimmer’ an elderly member of the Church, Alma is treated to the story of how the three Nephrites, figures from the Book of Mormon, possibly helped his wife change a flat tyre on the side of the M58 :

Alma shrugs. He can’t believe Brother Rimmer thinks three ancient, undead Americans changed Sister Rimmer’s tyre – he may as well credit the three little pigs.

‘The three Nephite’s . First thing we thought of. Can’t say for sure , of course. But that’s what we reckoned – our very own miracle. Sister Rimmer told everyone in Testimony Meeting. She was right proud.’ Brother Rimmer swivels back to the computer screen and minimises the page. ‘It’s a comfort isn’t it? To know the Lord’s looking out for you. He’s a personal God and no problem’s too small to turn over to him.’

Nor is this a voyeuristic look at Mormon life. Bray was born a Mormon but gradually left the Church as an adult. The book is an examination of the nature of faith and how it can act as a barrier  between us and the ones we love. The rigid set of beliefs imposed by the Church only serve to make the family feel more isolated  and vulnerable as things deteriorate. Ian refuses to seek help from outside even as catastrophe again seeks to overwhelm them.

This is a powerful story told from the different points of view of each member of the family. An ideal book for a bookgroup discussion. Highly recommended.

A Song For Issy Bradley is published by Hutchinson on 19th June. Many thanks to them for the review copy.

 

 

 

 

Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey

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There have been a plethora of debut novels recently in which the story is recounted by a ‘challenged ‘ narrator ; for example The Shock Of The Fall by Nathan Filer and recent winner of the Costa Prize ; The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion or The Universe Versus Alex Wood by Gavin Extence. Do we detect a trend in creative writing courses?

It was with some trepidation then that I picked up Emma Healy’s debut novel Elizabeth Is Missing, narrated by the elderly Maud,

Maud has dementia and the past and the present are becoming tangled in her mind :

Sometimes, when I’m having a sortthrough or a clearout, I find photos from my youth, and it’s a shock to see everything in black and white. I think my granddaughter believes we were actually grey-skinned, with dull hair, always posing in a shadowed landscape. But I remember the town as being almost too bright to look at when I was a girl. I remember the deep blue of the sky and the dark green of the green of the pines cutting through it,the bright red of the local brick houses and the orange carpet of pine needles under our feet. Nowadays – though I am sure the sky is still occasionally blue and most of the houses are still there, and the trees still drop their needles – nowadays, the colours seem faded, as if I live in an old photograph.’

As the story proceeds, Maud’s ability to distinguish between now and then ,to remember what people have told her and even where she is becomes more and more confused.

Maud is concerned about the whereabouts of her friend, Elizabeth. Her efforts to locate Elizabeth annoy and frustrate both Maud’s daughter, Helen, and Elizabeth’s son, Peter.

It becomes clear to us as readers that many of the people Maud questions or places that she visits have become frequent ports of call for her, although she has no memory of this herself .Even her system of post-it note reminders begin to baffle her. She can’t make any sense of the words written on them.

As her memory slips away, Maud’s search for Elizabeth becomes more frantic and is cleverly interwoven with her attempts as a young teenager to find out what happened to her sister, Suky, missing since 1946.It is this family mystery told in flashback that is driving Maud’s obsession to find her friend.

The grim post war world of bombsites, rationing, spivs and petty crime is vividly and convincingly imagined. It called to mind The Otterbury Incident by Cecil Day-Lewis, actor Daniel’s father.

The book raises many issues about how the elderly are perceived and cared for by their families, their carers and society in general. Helen struggles to manage her mother alongside her own teenaged daughter. Maud becomes distressed and confused when a different carer is sent to her home. Helen is left alone with the dilemma of how to look after a mother who increasingly doesn’t recognise her with little support available.

This is not a preachy or depressing work, however , but  a sparky and original debut ,funny and sad in equal measure.A real page turner. Highly recommended.

My thanks to Penguin Books for the review copy.

 

 

 

Just A Little Baileys…….

photoThe Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction was formerly called The Orange Prize and the winner will be announced tomorrow. This evening I went to a ‘preview’ event at The Southbank Centre in London where each of the six shortlisters was to read an extract from their novel and answer a few questions about the work.

Unfortunately, just a few days before the event it was announced that Donna Tartt, described by The Guardian as the frontrunner, was unable to make it. Instead her place was taken by Charles Dance, the actor, who joked that he had never felt so conspicuous in his life and then by her literary agent in the UK to answer questions.

First up was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie with Americanah, my personal favourite.She previously won the Orange Prize for Half Of A Yellow Sun. At the risk of sounding trivial, if there were a prize for best dressed author she would win hands down! I saw  her at the Hay Festival on Sunday and on both occasions she was dressed to kill. The lady has got STYLE!!

She was asked about the two very different experiences her main characters have when they leave Nigeria….Ifemelu in the USA and Obinze in the UK. She explained that all of their experiences were based on true life experiences although not necessarily her own.

She also explained that she had wanted to describe a sense of longing and homesickness for Nigeria which she had felt as a young student in the USA. She had also wanted to recreate the sense of betrayal she had felt too when she returned to Nigeria some years later and found it had not stood still waiting for her.

Next came Hannah Kent. Burial Rites is a debut novel from the Australian writer which I enjoyed but didn’t love.The novel traces the story of Agnus Magnusdottir, the last woman to be publically executed in Iceland in 1830.During the questions, Kent explained how she had come across the story first whilst she was a young exchange student in Iceland. She stressed that fact and fiction were very closely linked in the book and that she had to rein in her imagination and not speculate if there was no evidence for a particular aspect of the story. She was asked by a member of the audience whether she had ‘inhabited’ Agnus’ character. She replied that she had been drawn to Agnus as a young and lonely exchange student and felt she had carried Agnus with her throughout working on the book. She had a sense of grieving for her character when the work was finished.

Jhumpa Lahiri was for me the most disappointing of all the readers. The Lowland is a rich and enriching novel which deals with love , loss and the impossibility of forgetting. The extract chosen was not particularly illuminating nor representative of the beautiful prose in the book.I suppose it is difficult to choose a passage that in some way reflects the book without giving too much away of the plot however the reading was rather plodding and didn’t do the work justice at all.

Next was Audrey Magee reading from her book ,The Undertaking. I must be completely honest here, this is the one book on the shortlist I haven’t read.I feel a little resistant to it given its subject matter and perhaps the fairest thing I can say here is that although the passage chosen was beautifully read, I did not change my mind.

Moving swiftly on , the next was Eimear McBride reading from A Girl Is A Half Formed Thing. This is not an easy work either in voice or subject matter but it was beautifully read by the author. When introducing her, the chair had explained that writing the book had taken McBride six months but then she had faced a ten-year struggle to find a publisher. McBride then wryly remarked that she was indeed very glad to be invited to a Bailey’s Prize event.

She was asked by the audience if she intended to change her voice for her next work. She replied that she is interested in language and what it can be made to do ‘ against its will almost’. Her next work will have an equally innovative voice as well.

Finally, Charles Dance read an extract from The Goldfinch which had, apparently, been chosen by the author,  Donna Tartt. The passage chosen comes from the end of the book when the hero, Theo, is contemplating Fabritius’ painting which has haunted his childhood. It is one of my favourite parts of the novel . The Goldfinch won the Pulitzer Prize recently and the sheer quality of the writing shone through in Dance’s reading. During questions it was confirmed that Ms Tartt is indeed a big fan of Charles Dickens……….although J K Rowling was not mentioned.

Of course the winner will be revealed tomorrow evening…..my personal pick is Americanah, followed very closely by The Lowland. On the strength of tonight though, I suspect a ‘double whammy’ for Donna Tartt cannot be ruled out.

A great evening