Cam­pus in­ter­rup­tus

Bryan Cheyette ad­mires a tale of stu­dent life and death. Stod­dard Martin feels ‘blest’

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - Bryan Cheyette’s most re­cent book is ‘Di­as­po­ras of the Mind’ (Yale UP). UP­STAIRS AT THE PARTY By Linda Grant Vi­rago, £14.99 RE­VIEWED BY BRYAN CHEYETTE

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.

PHOTO: PENNY MAD­DEN

Linda Grant: at her most ma­ture and com­pelling, peel­ing away lay­ers

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