By Ellen Finch
Linda Grant’s conversation with Caroline Beck at Durham Book Festival is far beyond a simple discussion of Grant’s newest novel, Upstairs at the Party. It is, instead, a funny and thoughtful insight into some of the most radical ideas of the early to mid-seventies. Grant talks of this era as a time when students were “lab rats in an experimental pool” – given total liberty, free of adult interference and support – at a campus that is quite clearly the University of York, in all but name. Beneath this freedom, however, is a darker assessment of the profound impact university life can have on its students. In the hour Grant has with the audience, she addresses themes such as responsibility, blame and mental illness to highlight student issues in the seventies that clearly resonate strongly with her own experiences.
Humorous, casual and perceptive, Grant’s talk is littered with anecdotes of her own time at university: telling familiar stories of the horrors of student accommodation, the struggle to define oneself in a new environment, and the importance of strong friendships. But between these stories, Grant voices her opinion on a number of sensitive topics.
Her novel is focused around a defining point in the narrative where something happens ‘upstairs at the party’ that will stay with the characters for their whole lives. She does not make clear what this event is, but her focus throughout the evening on the issues of mental illness and an unsupportive university system allows audience members to make an educated guess. Her novel’s narrator, Adele, looks back on this crucial moment with mixed feelings of responsibility, guilt, and blame, and Grant uses this narrative device to highlight her own memories of her university years: as she tells the audience, “there is nothing so distant as the recent past.”
Grant appeared to be looking towards her characters’ futures, highlighting some of the issues prevalent in an era that exists only as an implied future in her novel – namely, the 1980s and 1990s, where AIDS was becoming a widespread problem. Adele meets several advocates of sexual experimentation during her time as a student, not least an openly gay character called Bobby. Whilst Bobby appears to embody the freedom given to students to choose and express their individual identities, Grant was well aware of the AIDs epidemic about to overwhelm the gay community. She tells the audience that her time at university was one where “nothing could harm us”; Bobby’s sexual freedom, however, serves by implication as a powerful reminder of the potentially dangerous lifestyle he would later be exposed to.
Upstairs at the Party isn’t just a vivid and vibrant dialogue about student life in the seventies but also a reminder that issues such as mental health and the struggle for a definitive identity are dangers that all young people face, whatever their generation. Grant ends the discussion on a poignant note when she states that “every generation finds a new set of problems,” and perhaps this is why Upstairs at the Party has been greeted with such promising reviews: it is a funny, saddening and reflective novel inviting empathy from readers of all generations.