Grant explores youth in all its messy glory in this University novel that begins in the 1970s and hurtles to the 21st Century through the eyes of our statuesque protagonist Adele Ginsberg. The legacy of an event during a party (upstairs, of course) steers the course of Adele’s life and prompts her examination of her younger life.
Adele’s 1970s Liverpool is particularly grim with the shadow of her father’s suicide. Adele is also horrified by the elder women who plot her family’s survival from the kitchen table and get her working behind a perfume counter. Spurred on by The Female Eunuch and a postcard from Alan Ginsberg, Adele blags her way into a newly launched University – based on Grant’s own, York – to be among the free-spirited cushioned by government funding, flowing drugs and passionate ideologies. Just like her peers, reinvention is at the heart of Adele’s studies of the Arts and leads to struggles of identity caused by the overwhelming freedom their university provides.
The narrative is from the point of view of Adele in her fifties and there is clear purpose to the survey of her early life, which is established from the outset:
If you go back and look at your life there are certain scenes, acts, or maybe just incidents on which everything that follows seems to depend. If only you could narrate them, then you might be understood. I mean the part of yourself that you don’t know how to explain.
Adele impresses on us that she is attempting to grapple with her history and shape it into a narrative. The process of moulding events into a story becomes embedded in the narrative: creating a layer made tense with the need for justification and resolution from the messy strands of biography.
The first act delves into the characters that populate the socialist meetings and halls of residence with vivacity. Grant evokes the era and setting with electric prose that describes the excitement of youth playing with concepts and politics for the first time along with Adele’s cautious approach. Adele withholds her gritty background from her peers and watches with a keen eye that is described as cold and a ‘survival instinct’ by others. Adele’s perspective is sharp with the mercilessness of hindsight and exposes the myths that era gave its youth. A flamboyant gay friend and a mousey musician drawn into the Communist Party act as counter-balances to Adele’s lack of expression towards her sexuality or ideology.
The central event that Adele tries to press on the audience as the defining moment of her identity involves Evie, half of a couple called Evie and Stevie that have reinvented themselves through dressing identically and leave the group beguiled. A Sapphic fixation on Evie and the events that follow are left to be coped with by all of them without any paternal gesture from the university.
Adele uses Evie as her tool to understand everything from then on. We see her following her footsteps through others, bringing up at her name in group gatherings and goes on a quest to find Evie’s own narrative decades later by pursuing a set of her journals that have been lost. Small details of that night are unearthed and Adele dissects them hungrily to find herself in them.
After the university days, the second half of the book rushes through the succeeding decades where Adele wanders around America (telling strangers about Evie), plays with a semi-successful punk band, buys a house, has affairs and works for a magazine. The electricity of the first half is replaced with stasis, despite the rush of time and events. Her former uni friends have all been let down by their ideals, which seems to confirm Adele’s gloom and worship of Evie.
The structure and ambition of the novel, to capture the experience of a generation as ‘a giant social experiment’, is let down by Adele failing to be an engaging character. Her fixation on Evie seems unconvincing and the fixation of the narrative on the specific point makes the rest of the narrative feel deflated. Grant is an accomplished writer with a clear talent for social observation, but the flaws in the narrative make this an ultimately deflating read.