I came across Elizabeth Day’s name in an article in The Guardian Weekly about that old perennial – why do books written by men get so much more interest from reviewers? The writer, a man, reeled off a list of names including Elizabeth Day, Sara Baume and Polly Clark, and yes, of course they were in my trusty local library. What a find. More to come about Sara Baume and Polly Clark (who is a poet too).
Elizabeth Day has written four books, Scissors Paper Stone, Home Fires, Paradise City and now The Party. ‘Brideshead Revisited meets The Talented Mr Ripley’, says the blurb, and it’s not wrong. It’s a very cunningly-constructed psychological drama centring on the relationship between Martin Gilmour, son of a widow who works in a cafeteria, and the golden boy Ben Fitzmaurice whose father is a peer and who lives in a 17th century manor with topiary and peacocks. The book opens in a police interviewing room, where Martin is being questioned about an “incident” at Ben’s 40th birthday party that night. It takes the length of the book to find out what that incident is. The chapters switch between the interview, Martin’s recollections of his past with Ben, and Martin’s wife Lucy’s recollections of her relationship with Martin. Lucy is in a psychiatric rehab facility as a result of the “incident”, but it’s clear that she’s a canny, fearless observer in spite of her mousy appearance.
Martin is a withdrawn, calculating child, not bothered by his unpopularity at his drab little school. If he almost cries in this conversation with his mother, it’s not out of love for her but because she can get right into him, like someone probing a mollusc:
“I’ve tried to raise you like a normal boy…But you’re not, are you? Normal, I mean.” She broke off and then added, more to herself than to me: “There’s something missing.”
I willed myself not to cry. Until this point, I’d felt powerfully immune from any kind of emotion. But my mother had always possessed the ability to wound me at the most tender point.
She drained the last of her coffee.
“Yes,” she repeated. “There we are.” (50)
The only person Martin ever loves is Ben, from their earliest days at school where Martin’s a despised scholarship boy, through Cambridge and up until the night of the party. He loves him for his effortless charm, his air of careless wealth and his position at the top of the pecking-order. And he’s in love with him; in typical Martin-fashion this is at the same time made completely clear to us and obfuscated. Ben is the other person who can wound him at his most tender point, and the story is the slow-motion unfolding of Martin’s understanding of that wound.
I was reminded of James Lasdun’s The Fall Guy, which we reviewed a few weeks ago. This is a different book, more thickly-woven in its exploration of relationships and more of a slow burn, but it’s just as good.