Reviewed by Eric Karl Anderson
Towards the end of Linda Grant’s new novel, the narrator Adele asks her friend “How do we get people so wrong… when we are so intensely curious about them?” This is the question which seems to have plagued her entire life after losing her friend Evie while at university. There is a central mystery which is literally about what really happened to Evie upstairs after the narrator’s birthday party on one fateful night. Adele pieces together what might have occurred through meeting with various people involved when she is an adult. But more than this is the question at the heart of this novel of trying to understand Evie’s essential being and how Adele’s love and fascination for her friend can’t be put to rest because she will always remain obscured by the narrative of history. In this way the novel resonates with how our consciousness attaches itself to certain individuals we fall in love with. There is a wonderment to them which grips our imagination. We want to assimilate aspects of their identity to our own, know everything about them, revel in their contradictions and make their story a part of our own individual narratives.
The novel is moreover a coming of age story about how Adele learns early on certain life lessons from her fascinating con-artist father and his flamboyant gay artist friend Yankel Fishoff. Adele understands from her father and Yankel that you have to craft a story about yourself and decorate your identity if you are going to stand out and get what you want from life. But she also learns certain things, specifically to do with gender that she will later question: “From my father I learned that when men were around there was more of everything, more luxury and abundance, and that women had to learn forbearance in the face of their big appetites, and manage the domestic economy.” These gender roles are ripe for dissection and the formation of a self-consciously feminist movement which Adele witnesses at university.
At the newish (un-named) university the administration’s “plan was to defeat ideology with a quiet, humane liberalism of human right, equality and a spirit of public service.” However, she and her friends spend this formative period of 1970s Britain exploring evolving ideologies as they collectively discuss and appropriate kinds of feminism, Trotskyism, homosexuality and Freudian ideas. It’s a period of intellectual fervour and inventive experimentation which the narrator later claims to be “a now-discredited decade.” Yet the passion and excitement of the group of intelligent individuals described groping their way through this jungle of ideas makes them all really come alive.
The next two sections of the novel take us into Adele’s adult life where she lingers on reflections about university, uncovering what happened to her friend Evie and catching up with how her companions turned out. This is a novel concerned with the nature of story telling – all the inventive power, overriding pleasure and sly danger of it. In recounting the accumulation of details about her own life Adele finds that “A story was building and as with all stories, it was better in the telling than the living.” As narrator, she is in the position to tell it like she saw it and uncover what happened by interviewing those involved, but filter the details through her own system of values. Although she seems to be striving for some kind of transparency Grant reminds us “That is the power of stories, never forget: they make the truth.”
Grant’s writing is a pleasure to read because it can be so focused and precise. She has an excellent ability to sum up complicated concepts in short pithy sentences. For instance, she writes “And we are animals with the heads of men.” This instantly conjures ideas about how we are really ruled by baser instincts although we always feign an image of civility. At other times her descriptive powers cast images in the mind that are strikingly vivid and gruesome: “Some people have a smile like a watermelon slice.” Sometimes the plain truth of her writing speaks so much more about the complicated dynamics of relationships than any specific story ever could: “The back of the head of someone you have slept with is one of the most familiar parts of their body.” The author has a talented ability for wielding language to create poignant flashes of recognition in the reader’s mind. It’s interesting that the author frames the novel as having been inspired by a particular time in her own life, yet didn’t want to compose an autobiographical account. I suspect that this is because Grant probably shares the sentiments of her narrator who states “I do not care for the current fad for misery memoirs. I don’t want to hear about your hard times.” By creating a great work of fiction, Grant is also able to artfully construct a tale open to an expansive sense of understanding and many interpretations that nonfiction doesn’t necessarily allow. Upstairs at the Party is the kind of novel where you want to flip back to the first page once you’ve finished the last in order to discover what layers of meaning you might have missed on the first time around.
Eric blogs at LonesomeReader. Since he wasn’t born until the late 70s he sometimes feels like he missed his chance to live on a commune and fight with flower power.
Linda Grant, Upstairs at the Party (Virago, London, 2014) 978-1844087495, Hardback, 320 pages.