Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Two remarkable books: Linda Grant and Sarah Perry's new novels are among the best of 2014

Upstairs at the Party (3 July 2014) by Linda Grant
After Me Comes the Flood (3 July 2014) by Sarah Perry

I've really struggled to write about several of the books I've really loved this year. Maybe because it's easier to write a review of something that has both good and bad points for me to get my teeth into: maybe because reading something so brilliant always leaves me feeling I lack the eloquence necessary to do it justice. Aware I was in danger of leaving two of my favourite books of the year so far (which, coincidentally, were published on the same day) without reviews, I decided to write about them together.

Upstairs at the Party by Linda Grant I was interested in Upstairs at the Party from the moment I read the outline. In the early Seventies a glamorous and androgynous couple known collectively as Evie/Stevie appear out of nowhere on the isolated concrete campus of a new university... For Adele, with the most to conceal, Evie/Stevie become a lifelong obsession, as she examines what happened on the night of her own twentieth birthday and her friends' complicity in their fate. A set of school exercise books might reveal everything, but they have been missing for nearly forty years... This is an accurate description of the book, but only partially accurate, and for all that I found this blurb extremely intriguing, I could easily have been disappointed. (I imagined, for example, that it would explore gender politics in some detail, when in fact it only touches lightly on this subject.) Instead, after starting with the impression that this would be another tale of twisted relationships with an academic backdrop - a sub-genre I adore but also, generally, quite an easy set-up for a good writer to execute successfully - I found it becoming something else entirely, something much bigger and more impressive than I had originally expected.

Upstairs at the Party is, in fact, Adele Ginsberg's life story. It is a university book in one sense, but it goes far beyond that, confronting adulthood in a way few 'coming-of-age' novels do. Themes of identity, concealment, performance and artifice run throughout the story from Adele's childhood to her middle age: the androgynous image cultivated by Evie and Stevie is just one of perhaps a hundred examples. While, as the blurb hints, there is a mystery surrounding Evie, there is more lasting significance to the way Evie's constructed identity transcends her as an individual, and continues to impact on those who knew her for decades after its creation. The university the characters attend (never named in the narrative, but obviously York) is a strange mix of old and new, a combination that fits with their shared experience of coming of age in a stagnant era, after the hedonism of the Sixties but before the rise of punk. This disorientation seems to define the characters' generation, not only while they are students but for the rest of their lives, and perhaps this is why they are so keen to pretend, to experiment with their political affiliations, sexualities, and personas. We see them long after they have abandoned the idealism of youth; we discover the many things they go on to be - which doesn't always make for happy reading.

Like Siri Hustvedt, Grant is adept at portraying complicated, damaged female characters - women who may not necessarily be likeable but are raw, real, angry, honest - and demonstrating that emotional anguish and doubt are constants in life, not just a part of youth. Adele is a difficult character, and an unusual protagonist for a story of this type: while she is something of an outsider, so are almost all her friends, and she is certainly tougher than many of them, doggedly optimistic, with a hard, deliberately uncomprehending attitude towards depression. She also expresses some opinions about rape which I found genuinely shocking. Adele's faults, though, don't make her an unpleasant character. Rather, they make her truly authentic, as if a sympathetic biographer knew they had to include every detail of her personality in order to be accurate. In fact, one of the best things about this book is the painfully believable characterisation. As students, the characters may be pretentious and hedonistic, but they are very much aware that they are playing out roles, not behaving naturally; the author makes it clear that just beneath the surface is a great deal of self-consciousness, immaturity and uncertainty, and this carries through to their older incarnations, particularly with Adele.

In Upstairs at the Party, everything happens: a whole lifetime happens. It's an intelligent and broad-ranging story which touches on issues including feminism, religion, seventies left-wing politics, racism, gender, AIDS, adultery, motherhood, growing up, growing old, and trying to find out who you are, even if that 'finding out' is still going on when you've left your youth behind. Effortlessly evocative of every era and setting her narrative touches, and supernaturally adept at weaving the effects of history (personal and otherwise) into her characters' lives, Grant has written an absolute powerhouse of a book.

Next to the expansive scope of Upstairs at the Party, the premise of Sarah Perry's debut novel, After Me Comes the Flood, seems almost the polar opposite: it takes place over just one week, and much of the action is contained within a single building. But like Grant's book, it knocked me off my feet and made me want to weep with a) joy and b) jealousy; and like Grant's book, it turned out to be something other, and better, than what I had expected.

After Me Comes the Flood by Sarah Perry Another similarity with Upstairs at the Party is that the blurb I read sparked my interest long before I bought the book. One hot summer's day, John Cole decides to leave his life behind. He shuts up the bookshop no one ever comes to and drives out of London. When his car breaks down and he becomes lost on an isolated road, he goes looking for help, and stumbles into the grounds of a grand but dilapidated house. Its residents welcome him with open arms - but there's more to this strange community than meets the eye. They all know him by name, they've prepared a room for him, and claim to have been waiting for him all along... The surreal aspect of this idea led me to expect something with a paranormal twist: perhaps ghosts? All-knowing stalkers? A secret society? I suppose it's also fair to say that this is (also, again) a collection of tropes that automatically intrigues me (crumbling mansion? check!) and therefore wouldn't be hard for me to love, even if poorly written. But it is brilliantly written, and rises above any clich├ęs the plot might seem to suggest.

In actual fact, it soon becomes clear that there is a rather more ordinary (if unlikely) explanation for the group's embrace of John. At first this felt like a letdown: I wanted something uncanny, not normal people making a simple mistake. However, there is still plenty of potential for intrigue and a slow-building kind of tension, as John repeatedly resolves to leave this place and finds he has no desire to do so. There is still the question of who these people are and how they came to be here. There is still the mystery of who might be writing hurtful letters to fragile, anxious Alex, or carving the strange name 'Eadwacer' - a remnant of an enigmatic folk tale - in furniture around the house. And what of the nearby reservoir; is there really, as Alex fears, a chance that it will cause a biblical flood and engulf the house? In the shimmering, oppressive heat - perfectly evoked - this seems laughably unlikely, yet a sense of dread remains and it is hard not to feel there is some impending doom awaiting them all. The narrative moves very slowly towards its climax, but for me the pace was an asset, allowing a gradual release of information, the reader kept as much in the dark as John is.

The quality of the writing, description and atmosphere reminded me of The Secret History, and that is pretty much the highest compliment I can give. The smallest incident is imbued with endless meaning and symbolism; something as banal as a wallpaper pattern becomes utterly enchanting. Another comparison I am drawn to make - though a fairly useless once, since few people have read it - is L.R. Fredericks' Farundell. I'm mentioning this book not because the two are of similar quality - I found Fredericks' novel disappointing - but because After Me Comes the Flood was everything I wanted Farundell to be: an 'eccentric cast of characters in a big old house' story that manages to avoid stereotypes, complete with glimpses of magic, filled with complex human interaction that is driven by more than just sexual desire. The development of John's relationships with the other residents made me realise how infrequently friendships are portrayed with such care and detail without then being used as a prelude to something else, usually a romantic or sexual relationship. In this story, every tiny nuance of behaviour is carefully noted and everything has a certain significance.

In After Me Comes the Flood, very little happens - even an apparently dramatic, potentially disastrous incident produces nothing much in the way of an outcome. Yet it is rich with the power of expert storytelling, soaked in dreamlike atmosphere, and quietly, seductively gripping. It has a fairytale undertone but at the same time is absolutely real, taking you on a journey that is all about character development and self-discovery. Fittingly, what goes on inside the walls of this mysterious house is far more important than any external action, and while there may not be ghosts, this book is undeniably haunting.

I have already noted that 2014 has been a great year for new fiction, but Upstairs at the Party and After Me Comes the Flood are two truly remarkable books. There's so much more I could say about them both, if I had the time to write essays about books I loved, if I had the ability to articulate everything they made me feel. I know I'm going to end up re-reading and re-re-reading these novels, picking them apart for years to come. I can't recommend either of them highly enough.

I received an advance review copy of Upstairs at the Party from the publisher through NetGalley.

Upstairs at the Party | Rating: 10/10 | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback
After Me Comes the Flood | Rating: 10/10 | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Paperback
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