[Narrator Martin has won a scholarship to a public school]
My mother ignored the approved outfitters and uniform suppliers, seeking out instead the cheaper bargains in charity shops. As a result, my school jumpers were always faded and my PE shorts were never white enough and the Aertex shirts had immoveable off-yellow stains under each armpit. The smell of other people’s sadness lingered in the threads.
To this day I have a profound aversion to second-hand clothes. I can’t abide the new trend for ‘vintage’ outfits, the nipped-in 50s dresses sported by overweight ladies who live in east London running Scandinavian coffee shops and the rolled-up chinos favoured by bearded hipsters who work in digital marketing. I have a minimal wardrobed but I invest in key, tailored pieces that last. Although I can’t really afford it, I have my suits made to measure by Ben’s tailor, purely for the pleasure of knowing no-one else has ever shrugged their shoulders into my jacket.
commentary: A highly enjoyable book: the perfect holiday read. It has a lot of features that you recognize – an unreliable narrator (I loved the amazon reviewer who called him ‘a psychopathic Adrian Mole’), an unequal friendship between a golden boy and someone much less attractive, the framing device where we know something terrible happened at the Party of the title, a sour look at the class system and the powerful glitterati in modern Britain. The timeframe jumps about, and you have to check each chapter to see when and where it takes place, and who is the narrator.
All this was very familiar, but for me that meant I just settled in to enjoy it. Of course you don’t warm to the main character, and you know that the aristocratic Ben (how did he get to stand for Parliament with his title?) is shallow and worthless, you can even guess what Martin’s hold is on the family. But it was great fun to watch it all unfold with many a wince-and cringe-making moment. Lucy – really the only major female character – was very intriguing, and I thought deserved more of her own story. The scene where she interrupts a discussion of modern American literature was the most biting bit of social satire in the book.
The two main men meet at school, where effortlessly successful Ben helps out the unpopular scholarship boy Martin. Their friendship continues on through the rest of their lives until, in middle age, the party of the title brings its own showdown. There are homoerotic undertones in their relationship, though it is never clear that Martin has any good points. Initially I thought Ben was just good-natured enough to be kind to another boy, but nothing in the rest of his portrayal makes that seem likely. Was Martin in fact terribly sexy? Perhaps.
The scenario has echoes of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley, Charles & Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited, the works of Alan Hollinghurst, even The Great Gatsby, but has its own intricacies and plot turns. And as with Highsmith, how very interesting to get a female take on this storyline.
The picture of the schoolboys is from the New South Wales archives.
The suit poster is from Next, a very fine retailer but probably not where Martin or Ben get their clothes from.