The Party by Elizabeth Day

Usually when you read a book, you make up your mind about the main character fairly quickly, or at least about whether they’re basically good or bad. But that’s not the case in this book. Martin Gilmour is accused again and again of being ‘not quite right’; of having something integral ‘missing’. It’s clear that he can be obsessive, cruel and even vengeful. But is he deranged? In Martin, prepare to find an armchair psychologist’s perfect case-study, a deliciously compromised and compromising character who may or may not be rotten to the core.

Martin is being interviewed by the police when we first meet him, following an incident at a lavish fortieth birthday party. The party was in honour of his childhood best friend Ben, and while the exact nature of the incident is not clear, it’s evident that whatever happened has damaged the friendship. The narrative, told alternately from Martin’s and his wife Lucy’s perspective, gradually teases out the details of how a teenage Martin obsessively forced a friendship with Ben after receiving a scholarship to the prestigious Burtonbury School. Ben is a bit of a Jay Gatsby character – rich, charming, moving effortlessly in privileged circles. Through his friendship, Martin sees not only an opportunity to insinuate himself into the upper echelons of society, but also, through fulfilling Ben’s needs, to validate his own. When the two are at Oxford University together, he seizes the opportunity offered by a tragic accident to bond them for life. Or so Martin thinks. At Ben’s fortieth, among all the cocaine and debauchery, it becomes clear that the friendship has ceased to serve Ben. But Martin is not going to let go of the relationship that he has invested so much time and energy into.

Reminiscent of both The Great Gatsby and The Talented Mr Ripley, spliced with the contemporary sexual politics and social realism of Tsiolkas’s Barracuda, The Party is a hypnotic, disturbing read.

Hilary Simmons works as a bookseller at Readings at the State Library Victoria, and as part of the Readings events team.