Upstairs at the Party by Linda Grant is published by Virago, price £14-99.
Throughout Upstairs at the Party there is the sense of loss and nostalgia for a period of youth and freedom in an era that lends itself more to mythology than to history. Linda Grant obviously draws on her experience from reading English at the University of York and she does capture the vibe of a university in the 1970’s in her description of a world where freedom could be found ‘ in the form of out- of -order telephone boxes and second-class postal delivery’ (p. 70) She populates this pre- cellphone university with her realist narrator Adele; her flatmate Gillian who comes to university a passionate about the viola only to abandon it when she is sucked into the Communist party; the bossy and feminist Dora who organizes everyone around her ; the gay Jahandar known as Bobby; and the androgynous couple known as Evie and Stevie who are so close to each other that they seem to be one person.
Linda Grant begins her novel with force. The first chapter begins with a paragraph that immediately captures the reader and forces them to think back to events in their own life that marked them and molded them into the people they are. As Adele says ’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’ (p.6). There are many scenes and incidents in the novel that could define a person, but the huge one is the death of Evie. The novel uses Evie’s, or to use the proper name she hated, Lorraine’s death to pose serious questions about what liberation and equality really mean. As the hard-boiled narrator Adele describes it her teenage self ‘ knew with the green force of teenage certainty, the driving fuse of insufferable self- confidence, that human weaknesses like jealousy and personal ambitions were going to wither away’ (p.6). It would be a new world where all were equal and all would be free. The tragedy is that it is a mixture of human weakness and personal ambitions that spell the death of Evie.
Perhaps the most telling part of the text is itself a quotation from The Duchess of Malfi used in two entries marked November 2013. The quote ‘Let all sweet ladies break their flattering glasses, and dress themselves in her ‘ (p. 1) leads the reader in and out of the novel’s discussion of self-identity. Evie, is a beautiful and androgynous figure who is unable to control her own life as other people dress her and dictate her life. She becomes wrapped in the life that others envisage for her. Her very clothes on her death are purchased by her ex-boyfriend’s girl friend who seems to wish to pretended to be Evie, as Adele’s says, ‘ the stupid bitch thought she she could turn herself into something other than a nonentity by what she wore of all things’ (p. 149) . While Evie herself is more than a non-entity she is never truly understood and wanders through the text as a ghost being both an image of fascination and emulation.
Sadly the novel loses power and the final reveal forty or so years on feels too contrived and engineered: It is shocking rather than satisfying. There is a lack of catharsis at this point as the reader has lost touch with the characters. There is no sense of community in the novel or any hope of community. Each character is left to struggle with life on their own and for themselves. The persona of the narrator is very much a realist who is ‘ attracted to the survivors, not the victims ’ (p. 303 )of the game of life. In reflecting back on her life she recognizes the how much her younger self might have learned from the older generation of women who did not allow themselves to surrender or be beaten by death. Further she speculates that under their care Evie may have survived.
While the novel involves the unwinding of the culpability of various parties in the death of Evie it does not come to any satisfying conclusion her death. The explanation involves her mental health along with her incest fixation on her brother coupled with her last conversation with her ex- boyfriend’s new girlfriend yet as an explanation it feels unsatisfactory and forced. The novel breaks down by trying to give an explanation where before it operated by feeding on the unexplainable. The point is not why and how a young student died , but rather what that experience of death created for others. It is a novel about the survivors of life rather than the failures. Upstairs at the Party makes the journey rather than the destination is important.
Anna Kirsch is a second year English Literature student at Bath Spa University. She is an international student from Maui. Her research interests centre on the Early Modern Period. She is especially interested in the application of Evolutionary Biology to literature and the impact Evolutionary Biology will have on discussions involving gender.