Room At The Top Paperback – 3 Aug 1989
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"A harsh, accurate, powerful piece of story-telling" (Tribune)
"Remarkable. . . Room at the Top communicates so successfully the mingled bitterness and bravery of youth" (Sunday Times)
"He has real talent" (C.P. Snow)
"This novel is brilliant...The observation is shrewd and the emotion and the comedy are so true it hurts." (Daily Express)
The bestselling story of Joe Lampton, the original 'angry young man'. A cult novel depicting 1950s Yorkshire, Room at the Top was adapted into an Academy Award winning film in 1959.See all Product description
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I was born and brought up in a town much like Dufton, the depressed and depressing northern town that the anti-hero Joe Lampton is trying to escape from, so the novel strikes a cord straight away. Joe and his friend call the various town hall functionaries in Dufton 'zombies' - moving but not really alive. As the story develops you realize that for all Joe's desire to escape from Dufton to the middle-class valhalla of Warley (or its like) he has really only move geographically, but he still very much a product of his class and his birthplace.
Joe Lampton has three driving forces in his life: ambition, class consciousness and a liking of women. These all play an important part in the story and weave together to drive Joe up the social ladder but also towards heartbreak.
Much of the story revolves around his affair with Alice Aisgill, an older women who is an independent spirit - within the society of the time she acted with the independence of a man and wasn't afraid to make it clear that she wasn't anyone's chattel (though her freedom depended on the loveless marriage to a rich man). Joe is torn between Alice and Susan Brown. Susan is only 19. and the pampered virgin daughter of a rich and worldly-wise businessman. Joe falls for her at first sight (before he knows that association with her could help him up the greasy pole, or prevent it forever). Susan is rather childish and shallow, and the perfect catch for Joe's working class view of man and woman, but Alice is more than his equal.
Some of the glimpses of post-war Britain (e.g. rations and the central role of the town hall) are fascinating and included in the story in such a way as to be as natural as air. They are written by somebody for whom it was simply a part of life, rather than with the curiosity of a spectator looking back.
The copy I read (a Penguin orange cover) was printed in 1959 and the paper was going a bit brown. This added to the sense of looking into that world - the book was almost as old as when the story was set.
Joe Lampton is a great lead character. Robust, blunt speaking, masculine, ambitious living his life on his own terms until eventually conforming, he is also sensitive and compassionate.
The women Joe must choose between, Susan whose presented as being the innocent Daddy's Little Girl, and Alice, the worldly older married woman, at first seem like some sort of virgin and whore caricature. In fact the female lead characters are developed well as the novel progresses, and begin to become more complex and interesting than one first assumes.
The climax of the novel is superb. Joe Lampton has achieved what he wanted, but pays a tragic price
The saddest part of Lampton's hubris, however, is his internalised struggle that opines his ambition as a shameful thing - struggling against the conditioning of childhood. We are also given glimpses of how others (mainly middle-class) view young Joe and his faux-pas - all of it grist to the Lampton mill.
Eventually, Joe is given the opportunity to climb and make-good by dint of some underhandedness and a plain-speaking father-in-law to-be recognising that Joe's rise mirrors his own. Thus, the stage is set for Braine's sequel (the ultimately unsatisfying 'Life At The Top') and the continuation of the story of a big-ish fish in a small pool.
As an historical anomaly in the roll-call of those 1950's English works that are worth re-reading, 'Room At The Top' must take its rightful place.
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