Upstairs at the Party, by Linda Grant, Virago, RRP£14.99, 320 pages
Linda Grant’s nostalgic novel on the era in which she and I both came of age, the 1970s, accurately captures a universe which seems much further away than it is. We were, as she says, “primitive tribes of the Amazon” when it came to the absence of the technological trinkets that pass for diversion and duty today. But there were deeper differences: “It was what was in our heads that the next generation just can’t comprehend. How our values were made up of ought and should, and how we hammered each other to death with them.”
This was both a comfort and a vice of that age. The ethical homilies stood our generation in good stead as it negotiated world revolution, undistracted by online shopping and the flip dissemination of our personal lives on social media. Yet it was also more judgmental, less accepting of difference, than is popularly portrayed. The novel’s narrator, Adele, floats into university to live a grant-supported life “suited to Renaissance philosopher-kings”; but there is little sense of genuine intellectual curiosity around her circle of friends, too busy assessing their roles and responsibilities in the changing times.
Into the mix of gauche post-adolescent posturing arrive Evie and Stevie, inseparable beings, red-mouthed and pale, identically and unusually dressed, defiantly androgynous and radiantly charismatic. The “silvery” couple – think two Sebastian Flytes in Ziggy Stardust apparel – has an effect on all of Adele’s newfound friends, shifting the delicate balance of their relationships with each other.
So far, so callow. Grant’s smorgasbord of characters is a little clichéd: a flamboyant gay man, a revolutionary and a west London mummy’s girl cluster around Adele, who is by a distance the least interesting of them. Yet it is Evie and Stevie who call the social shots. And they are also at the centre of the life-would-never-be-the-same-again moment when a party spirals out of control, leaving the group with the “spurious wisdom that we had been through tragedy together”.
It is the gravity of this moment, Grant would have us believe, that goes on to haunt her characters for the next 40 years. The chronicle of gradual disillusionment suffered by Adele is, again, familiar territory. Guess which disease accounts for the flamboyant gay man in the mid-1980s? The mummy’s girl turns up “dressed in a denim skirt, an oatmeal-coloured T-shirt with stains, and Birkenstocks on brown, hairy legs”; a reacquainted lover kits out Adele in “black plunge bra and crotchless knickers”.
The author stretches credulity here. The first problem is that it is hard to believe that the events narrated in the first part of the book have such lingering effect. Unlike our response to Brideshead Revisited (knowingly namechecked), we don’t actually fall under the spell of Evie and Stevie early in the novel, so it is hard to believe that they continue to play such a central role in so many lives. The answer to the riddle of what-really-happened-on-that-fateful-night is anticlimactic too. It is hardly the stuff of a lifetime of pondering.
Grant is also ambushed by her own ambition. In stretching her time-span to give us something of a state-of-the-nation address, she frequently reverts to stereotypes, and some clunky, improbable conversational exchanges. “We were goldfish, weren’t we? Who didn’t know that our water was a bowl,” says one of Adele’s friends to her. “Yes, that’s an interesting way of putting it. More than you know, actually,” is the wooden response. (The novel is almost entirely humourless.)
Like many people of her age, Grant doesn’t seem to like what happened to Britain from the 1980s onwards. There is no positive account of the dismantling of prejudices that helped dispel those ridiculous moral certainties of her youth. The age of the selfie may be narcissistic; yet it was the 1970s that was famously described as the playground of the original “Me” generation. Upstairs at the Party reminds us, above all, of that morbid fascination with ourselves that ultimately allowed all wider issues to slip through our fingers.