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.
When Adele talks her way into a radical and experimental new university in the early 1970s she longs to leave her old life behind. The appearance of a beautiful and androgynous couple known as Evie and Stevie on campus results in Adele finding herself inexplicably drawn to and obsessed with Evie, whose very existence seems to unsettle everything. This obsession becomes lifelong when a tragedy occurs upstairs at Adele’s twentieth birthday party. Moving across the country and through the decades, this novel charts Adele’s attempts to make sense of what happened that fateful night.
I had never read anything by Linda Grant before picking up Upstairs at the Party – she was always someone who was on my TBR pile, but who I just never quite seemed to get around to. When a reading copy of Upstairs at the Party appeared in the staffroom at work I practically jumped on it. I love novels that deal with obsession (Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller being one of my favourite books of all time), so the blurb instantly appealed to me. However, when I started reading I found that it dealt with not just obsession, but also the ideas of loss, identity, the passing of time, and how little sense life often makes.
I really enjoyed the way that Grant addressed the topic of obsession. Her success in dealing with it can be seen in how, even though Adele was the narrator of the book, I very much came away feeling as though Evie had been the central character. Despite only being present for half of the book, and not even necessarily overtly at the forefront of Adele’s mind throughout much of the portion where she doesn’t physically feature, her very existence seems to permeate every page.
Through Evie’s absence Grant addresses one of the other major themes of the book – loss. If Adele’s twentieth had just been a normal party and nothing had happened then perhaps her obsession with Evie would have reached a natural conclusion and fizzled out, eventually becoming nothing more than a footnote in her university life. The loss of Evie causes the opposite happens – it ensures that she lives on forever in Adele’s mind, taunting her with the question of ‘what if?’.
My favourite thing about this book though was the incredibly skill which Grant has for conveying the atmosphere of a time or place, and the feelings associated with a certain period of life. She succeeds both in immersing the reader in the radical and rebellious attitudes of the early 1970s, and also in of capturing the feeling of leaving home and having to create a new identity and find your way in the world. I also liked that the novel showed that in reality we never really grow up – life never really makes any more sense than it did before and ultimately years later we are still asking ourselves the same set of questions. It was also interesting for me on a personal level, as I briefly attended the university which Grant is writing about, albeit much later, so could pick out some of the places to which she was referring.
I highly recommend this novel – not only is the subject matter really interesting, but also the writing is so beautiful that at times I found myself in tears simply because of the sheer amount of feeling that it contained. I really enjoy quite character-focused novels, and to me this was one of the best ones I’ve read. The cast of characters is varied and, while many of them are significantly larger than life, they are all relatable in some way. I also particularly enjoyed the way the theme of memory ran through the whole novel, and the question of whether the account that we give of events has to be entirely truthful. This is so much more than just a campus story – it addresses much deeper questions which extend far beyond the university experience. I’m now so excited to read some of Grant’s earlier work!
Upstairs at the Party by Linda Grant is published by Virago, RRP £8.99
Review copy from the publisher