Upstairs at the Party

Linda Grant

Published by Virago 3 July 2014

320pp hardback £14.99

Reviewed by Alison Burns


‘This is how I came to be at university, I came at it as if I’d shot myself from a cannon across a river at a fortified target.  I passed through the glittering gate to knowledge, to the concrete campus and its plastic-bottomed lake, its ducks and drakes and population of girls and boys with immaculate examination records and me the imposter, trying to learn how to speak and dress and not be dragged back to the cut-glass bottles and the Rosenblatt trap.’

Liverpool in the early seventies: teenage Adele Ginsberg is desperate to escape from her provincial émigré background and her Saturday job at the perfume counter.  She wins a poetry competition and blags her way into a new university on the other side of the country on the strength of three undistinguished A levels and an encouraging postcard from American poet Allen Ginsberg (no relation)

This is the age of free education.  Her university has no rules, but it also has no pastoral care. Students are the future:  they must be allowed to question everything, try everything, and then sink or swim.  For a while, chain-smoking, hard-faced Adele enjoys the carnival.  Looking back, she knows that they were children living in a kind of Shangri-La.  Her new friends include outrageous Bobby, a gay (though closeted) Iranian, three earnest young women, Gillian, Rose and Dora, and an inseparable couple, Evie/Stevie, on whose doomed relationship the narrative turns.

Like some others in her year, Adele is in flight from more than suburbia and family expectations.  With the advent of a consciousness-raising group, secrets emerge to match her own, which happens to be that her beloved, extravagant father turned out to be a crook and hanged himself.  Evie, in particular (lovely mesmerizing Evie), is struggling with more than her evident eating disorder.  Rape, pregnancy, depression, mania and deceit all figure in this melting pot, as does the legacy of Nazism.

Neatly avoiding the challenge of loving a woman, Adele falls for Evie’s brother George, a passionate man living on a barge on the Thames.  They conduct a secret affair.  When disaster strikes, an accidental death, every one of them feels guilty and the network of friends splits apart. Years later, across a gulf of time that has taken her from hippie Cornwall to a squat in Stoke Newington to life as a successful features editor, Adele pieces together the story of what happened.

As in her previous novels, Linda Grant evokes a time and place with acutely accurate social and behavioural detail.  Clothes, conversations, fads, fronts, ideas  –  they are all here.  What she also achieves is a believable portrait of young people muddling through and only every knowing half of each other’s stories.



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