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Review: Room at the Top by John Braine

Room at the Top by John Braine book cover
Room at the Top (1957) by John Braine is a study of post-war Britain, its class structures, and the challenges that a young generation growing up faced. The central character, Joe Lampton, is a young man from a modest background. A reliable employee of the Government and an imposing, athletic figure, Joe is a hit with the ladies but he desires something more: a life better than the one he was born into. And so when Joe moves to Warley and starts seeing Susan - a young, attractive, if naive girl from a wealthy family - prospects look good for the lad, until that is, he starts up an affair with Alice, a married woman who is by some years his senior and has a dubious reputation. Where his love for Susan is shallow and hungry, his love for Alice is deeper, the two sharing a real connection. Neither love is perfect and plenty stands in the way of each affair. Inevitably things become increasingly complicated, and it seems certain that Joe is heading for heartache one way or another.

The novel is set in a period when class boundaries were clearly defined and social mobility was difficult. In a time when the effects of World War II were still evident, it's hardly surprising that the luxuries afforded the wealthy were coveted, and spawned a generation of Angry Young Men (of which Joe was certainly a part) who lashed out at a world stacked against them. However, though his great thirst for a better life drives Joe forwards and allows him to break into the insular society at the top it is at a significant cost to himself.

Room at the Top is one of the best known examples of social realism in literature, a style that flourished in Britain in the 1950s. The picture of Dufton, Joe's hometown, as a stale and stagnant place, whose inhabitants go mindlessly about their business with no thought of a better life is well done, and it's clear that Joe, even though he moves away from Dufton, has its effects ingrained in his character.

Braine's writing is functional but nothing more; he describes Joe's world well but without poetry, perhaps a style that suits its subject. The conversations, particularly Joe's dialogue, can become quite irritating, not quite hitting the mark and grating with an unreality and nauseating tone at times.

Joe can be a difficult character to empathise with, but his frustration with the world around him is something that a lot of young men will doubtless identify with. The women, on the other hand, are less well drawn and lack the depth of Joe's character.

The title foreshadows the social structure debates that take place in the novel, referring not only to Joe's dwellings but alluding to his desire to climb the social ladder. Ultimately, he is competing in a game he cannot win, and that feeling of helplessness in the face of a system stacked against you, is something that will resonate with many readers.

I just couldn't get excited about this. The plot is fine, it's a reasonable look at the class system in Britain and what it meant (or means) for those from a less privileged background, but the writing is so dry and uninspiring, the dialogue so appallingly clunky at times, that I really lost all interest in the book. Fair to say then, its cultural merit far outweighs its literary merit.


Useful Links
Reviews of Room at the Top on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Room at the Top on Amazon (US)
Film Adaptation of Room at the Top on Amazon (UK)
Film Adaptation of Room at the Top on Amazon (US)

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