Upstairs at the Party
by Linda Grant
‘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.’
In the early Seventies a glamorous and androgynous couple known collectively as Evie/Stevie appear out of nowhere on the isolated concrete campus of a new university. To a group of teenagers experimenting with radical ideas they seem blown back from the future, unsettling everything and uncovering covert desires. But the varnished patina of youth and flamboyant self-expression hides deep anxieties and hidden histories. For Adele, with the most to conceal, Evie/Stevie become a lifelong obsession, as she examines what happened on the night of her own twentieth birthday and her friends’ complicity in their fate. A set of school exercise books might reveal everything, but they have been missing for nearly forty years. From summers in Cornwall to London in the twenty-first century, long after they have disappeared, Evie/Stevie go on challenging everyone’s ideas of what their lives should turn out to be.
If I read a whole book in three days, you can be pretty certain I enjoyed it! Linda Grant’s “Upstairs at the Party” had me taking the bus rather than the tube for more reading time on my journey home!
“This novel is inspired by a particular time in my own life, but the characters and the events are the product of my imagination”
Grant’s partly autobiographical story is mainly set in the 1970s at a modern British university campus, providing background in earlier years and follow up in later years, ending in 2013. It follows the story of complex protagonist Adele, going to university, making a group of new misfit friends and learning more about the changing world they live in. Intriguingly, everything changes when a member of the group dies suddenly and unexplained, unaided by the university acting loco parentis. The story delves into the truth behind lies and deception and what becomes of the group.
I really enjoyed the connection I felt with the story and characters, none of which seemed unrealistic. I’m pretty sure that everyone who has ever been to university can remember or identify examples of them all; an inseparable couple (Evie/Stevie), a flamboyant socialite (Bobby), someone easily swayed by the views others (Gillian) and that one girl people weren’t that keen on (Denise). I found the characters to be varied and vibrant, each giving our sarcastic main character, Adele, something to think about, contemplate, moan or complain about.
“I was asked if I was interested in doing wardrobe but, having no skills with a sewing machine, I declined that irresistible offer.”
Through this coming-of-age story, I became engrossed in Adele and Co’s time at university and as the book progressed into later, I actually felt as if I needed a little more. I would have been perfectly happy with a book solely based at university without the added extras, giving the reader more time to explore the characters and their lives in more detail.
Despite this, it is clear that those added extras were actually necessary to the story’s message. Not just a story of friendship, Grant delved into Adele’s memory and explored the connections that keep us and those we know together – looking at the bigger picture: we are all part of something more. Having not seen her friends in years, an aging Adele speaks with her friends sporadically throughout, filling the gaps in the parts they had missed in each others’ lives. They discuss births, deaths and revelations, while recalling their shared past and both fond and tragic memories. Set in a time where communication was primarily through phone or letter, fading friendships seem understandable yet with technology and communication as it is today, I can only hope my relationships throughout time are much more stable.
While I was engaged throughout, I wasn’t awfully keen on the chapters detailing the contents of the long sought after Silvine exercise books. Without spoiling the plot, I felt that this was an unnecessary and uncomfortable read which could have been left to the reader’s imagination. While slightly spoiling the end of the book for me, I can gloss over this without too much worry.
Overall rating: A well written quick read providing an intelligent reflection of women’s friendship, secrecy, deceit and lies in recent history. I give “Upstairs at the Party” a positive 4 stars.