The family, as the Greeks knew well, is the source of all the best drama, but modern fiction tends to locate this in friendship. Ever since Brideshead Revisited, novels about "framily" (friends who replace family) formed at an elite university have abounded both here and in the US, with Donna Tartt's The Secret History as a kind of apogee.
Lucie Whitehouse's debut novel is the most recent of this genre. Jo, the narrator, is the daughter of two English teachers. A classics degree at Oxford has introduced her to her best friend, Lucas, who has just inherited a "Cotswold-stone pile" from his glamorous art dealer uncle, Patrick. On New Year's Eve, Lucas's five friends – Jo, Danny, Rachel, Martha and Michael, plus Rachel's new boyfriend Greg – come down to party and inspect the house. Only Jo, shy and asthmatic, senses anything sinister about the place, which is exquisitely furnished and painted with a scene of Zeus surrounded by gods.
At an age when "relationships were layered on us" after a decade of friendship, they are all in their late twenties, trying to advance their careers in journalism, banking, law and advertising, but with each other as the focus to their lives. If fiction like this were to be believed, the main purpose of going to Oxbridge is to form a tight-knit group of friends which enable the humble to taste the forbidden fruits of the beautiful and damned. So it proves.
The house, "a bigger stage", changes everything; at first for the better, as Lucas envisages it as a refuge. His long-standing love of Jo becomes an affair; but Jo is unsatisfied, and also upset by the wild Danny's accusations that she is only after Lucas for his money. Danny gets sacked and Lucas gives up his job, to become obsessed by old films showing his mother, father and uncle enjoying Stoneborough Manor. Jo's disquiet is intensified when she sees the "ineffably adult" Greg making manly love to Rachel; when their mutual attraction results in a passionate kiss, it is the beginning of the end for the group. The idyllic setting, parties, money and privilege give way to a Gothic meltdown of attempted suicide, murder and violence.
Whitehouse has already garnered praise from masters of suspense. People remembering or experiencing their own twenties will feel many pangs of recognition at her dramatic depiction of how the ferment of lust, ambition, sympathy and silliness continues well after the teenage years. The novel is nicely poised between the intellectual and the commercial, and is an enjoyable page-turner. What is missing is a wider sense of what these people are trying to protect themselves from.
The present generation of white, middle-class twentysomethings, burdened not only by professional and personal frustration but by economic inequity, deserve a chronicler, but Whitehouse's apolitical and inward-looking cast are hard to warm to. They apprehend that their parents were once people, too, but there is no searching for something bigger and deeper than personal happiness. The "many-headed entity that had absorbed us, protected us, entertained us" is ultimately "slain", as perhaps it must be for individuals to become fully adult. The true drama of family life awaits.
Amanda Craig's latest novel is 'Love in Idleness' (Abacus)
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