She really had been beaten down to her hands and knees, and it turned out to be me and my family that showed her how the whole hard-hearted trick of survival worked.
Adele Ginsburg is born in Liverpool to a working class, Jewish family who do what they have to in order to survive. Her dad’s a crook who hanged himself, leaving her mother and his best friend to bury the family’s valuables and mock-up a burglary to claim the insurance. Her mother and her friends insist that 16-year-old Adele should go out to work. Instead she stays on at school, gets CCD in her A Levels and blags her way into a new Yorkshire university via a postcard sent to her by her ‘cousin’ Allen Ginsburg.
We were encouraged to question, doubt, answer back, retort, rebel. If we wished to dress in outlandish clothes, that was our right. If we wanted to follow daft Eastern mystical practices like transcendental meditation, om-ing away at the crying sky, then we were free to do so. If we wished to blow our minds with hallucinogenic drugs on a path to enlightenment, then no one would interfere.
In those days the government paid us to spend three years being students, which meant, in those days, a way of life suited to Renaissance philosopher-kings, until we were turfed out blinking and unprotected like baby koalas ejected from the womb on to the alien, leafless world of an Antarctic ice flow.
At university, Adele makes a number of close friends – Dora and Gillian who share the room across the corridor in halls; Jahandar ‘Bobby’ who she meets in her first lecture (given by F.R. Leavis), and Evie/Stevie:
They had appeared as conjoined twins, out of nowhere…The boy had the white, possibly even powdered, face of a Pierrot from Commedia dell’Arte, and a dry red mouth. He wore spotless white dungarees and black baseball boots. Evie was dressed identically and, extremely unusually (I had never seen this before), they both had very short hair, sheared and standing upright like a hedge, hers almost white, snowy, his hair dyed black and red like a railing that had partly gone to rust.
It becomes apparent at various stages of the novel that these people are not everything they may seem. University is a excellent opportunity to reinvent yourself, to remove any versions of yourself you might dislike, or simply a to try out a new persona and all these people have something they want to bring to the forefront, or leave behind. However, some people seem to be built for survival – Adele, for instance – and can immerse themselves in their new surroundings and move forwards, while others are not and cannot. The consequences of the later are played out upstairs at the party and will reverberate for the rest of Adele’s life.
Upstairs at the Party considers a pivotal time in people’s lives and considers how much impact it actually has on who you become. It’s one of those rare books which considers an idea whilst telling an engaging story in precise, often stunning, prose. It’s one of my personal favourite books so far this year.
Thanks to Virago for the review copy.