Bryan Cheyette admires a tale of student life and death. Stoddard Martin feels ‘blest’
UPSTAIRS AT the Party is Linda Grant’s sixth novel. It contains many of her familiar preoccupations — a family secret, secondgeneration Jewish heroines from Liverpool, the relationship between surfaces and depths — but it also differs markedly from her previous work.
Beginning with The Cast Iron Shore (1996), her outstanding debut novel, Grant locates her complex, ambiguous characters on a far-reaching historical canvas ranging from Stalinist Russia to McCarthyite America or pre-state Palestine to Nazi Germany. The focus is on campus life in the 1970s, rather than these grand narratives, with ostensibly superficial experiences given the weight of history.
There is also a more autobiographical feel to the novel which is an imaginative reconstruction of a “particular time” in Grant’s life. The heroine of the novel, Adele Ginsberg, was born in Liverpool to Polish and Russian-Jewish immigrants. She is described by a friend as coming from Atlantis, “a refugee from a continent that has fallen into the sea”.
A perpetual outsider, she convinces the English department at her university (which is not unlike York University, which Grant herself attended) to accept her application. She gains entry not because of her qualifications but because she was supposedly related to the great American poet, Allen Ginsberg. At university, she is perennially suspicious of the “life of the mind” pre- ferring, instead, to rely on her “primitive” instincts.
Grant, as always, is adept at creating another world — here, it is the early 1970s with its mixture of far-left dogma, unreconstructed sexual politics, and glam-rock gender subversion.
The “playpen of student ideas” protects Adele and her friends from the harsh realities of a global recession sparked by the oil crisis that followed the Yom Kippur war. Adele’s claustrophobic campus world, as she came to regard it, was made up of androgynous Evie and Stevie, to whom she was immediately attracted, viola-playing Gillian, far-left Rose, Bobby from the Gay Liberation Front, and Dora, who set herself up as the “hostess of a political salon”. It was this group of eccentrics and armchair revolutionaries (along with Evie’s brother George) that Adele recalls four decades later.
On one level, this is a redbrick “glittering prizes”, as all of the figures in the novel, not least Adele herself, turn out to be “compromised” or part of an “alliance of liars” even though they rode the zeitgeist on campus. But what gives the novel depth is the death and subsequent memories of Evie, an “ethereal white-blond beauty”.
Adele’s obsession with recovering the truth surrounding both Evie’s last hours, and the secret underpinning her suicide, is described like a detective story and deftly links the past and present in the novel. Grant is at her best when she is peeling away the layers of her characters to discover a kernel of truth beneath. This is Linda Grant at her most mature and compelling as a story-teller, marred only by the occasional redundant plot-line.
Linda Grant: at her most mature and compelling, peeling away layers