From innocence to middle-aged regrets

By Lucy Daniel

Linda Grant's novel of 70s students growing up is convincing in its cynicism.
Linda Grant's novel of 70s students growing up is convincing in its cynicism.

Reconsidering moments that changed everything is an old chestnut in fiction, but Linda Grant manages it with verve in this excellent novel. For university students, the 1970s was an age of innocence, with Government grants giving them the privileged "way of life suited to Renaissance philosopher-kings".

Adele is born into a Jewish family in Liverpool, her father a small-time crook, her mother an advocate of "the Rosenblatt trap" (marriage) and a job at the perfume counter. Adele gets a place at a concrete university, founded to "defeat ideology with a quiet, humane liberalism of human rights, equality and a spirit of public service".

A utopia of breezeblocks and plastic-bottomed lakes, it is modelled on the University of York, where Grant was an undergraduate. Then F.R. Leavis wanders in, his shirt unbuttoned too far. Adele, a reader of The Bell Jar and The Female Eunuch, finds herself among earnest students who organise feminist "consciousness-raising groups". The college personalities are an ethereal couple known collectively as Evie/Stevie, who celebrate their androgyny by dressing in identical white dungarees and Dr Martens - and whose story will trouble for 40 years.

With its hindsight about tragic events and paths not taken, the novel has similarities to Julian Barnes' 2011 Booker winner, The Sense of an Ending. It has a similar insistence on reshaping the past, how information that wasn't available first time round could have changed the entire story, although it resists artful solutions, and is structurally looser.

There are plenty of compelling portraits of Adele's contemporaries, including her gay best friend, full of bravado and glamour. A summer spent in Cornwall is wonderfully evocative of certain "hippie gobbledegook".

It becomes a little snippety as Adele visits each of her old friends in late middle age; the Trotskyite sociologist has become a life peer in the House of Lords and the Laura Ashley-styled viola enthusiast has been spat out by various fanaticisms.

Straight-talking but far from straightforward in its observations, Upstairs At The Party's portrait of an era is convincing, its subtle cynicism regarding the pitfalls of freedom something to mull over.

Upstairs at the Party by Linda Grant (Virago $37.99).

- Daily Telegraph UK

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