It was a dark and stormy night...
It feels like we’ve been here before: a grand English house in the countryside, a beautiful young woman preparing for an evening party that might change her life, rounded out with a dependably eccentric cast of characters both upstairs and down. It is spring 1912 and readers may breathe a sigh of relief: we’ve read Waugh and seen Downton Abbey and are safe in this world of mannered civilization. But in her quirky and strangely enjoyable third novel, British novelist Sadie Jones seems to relish taking many of the reassuringly familiar tropes of English fiction and twisting them to just the point where one can never take the simplest thing for granted. Like the broken settee in the drawing room, what looks comfortable has the real possibility of being inescapable and quite unpleasant.
The grand house is Sterne, its roof and foundations crumbling, as are the hopes of young Emerald Torrington. Set to celebrate her twentieth birthday that evening, the festivities are more about securing the interest of the local landowner and possible financial savior as it is about enjoying the delicacies that the housekeeper Florence has carefully prepared. But the evening is hardly underway before a mysterious call comes from the Railway—a terrible crash has occurred, and it is the Torrington’s duty to take in the bedraggled survivors of a third class car. Resentful at the intrusion, the invited guests shut the interlopers away in the morning room and attempt to carry on as before, but the stormy evening continues to evolve into something strange and sinister. The number of passengers begins to morph as telephone contact with the Railway remains elusive, servants are called out into the storm and never seen again and youngest sister Smudge sees the chaotic evening as a chance to begin her Great Undertaking. But most troubling is the appearance of a too charming stranger whose sway over the dinner guests leads to more revelations and soul baring than anyone imagined. By the end of the evening, everything has been turned topsy-turvy, but has anyone really changed?
Jones, a Costa First Novel Award winner, has built a reputation for serious, dramatic portraits of 1950s Britain in her previous novels. The Uninvited Guests is a departure for her, bearing much more humor and playfulness, but her cutting views of English class obsession and provincial life still bears a razor sharp edge even in the seemingly innocent and safe pre-War era. Do Jones’ characters deserve what happen to them? Perhaps, but the real joy is that unsettled sense that keeps both reader and characters unaware of what might happen next. Part ghost story, part comedy of manners, with a dash of parable and horror, The Uninvited Guests is a satisfyingly light read that proves that there are clouds with those silver linings.