A decaying English country house holds menace and mystery in The Uninvited Guests, the remarkable third novel from Sadie Jones.
This is a departure from your previous work, especially the supernatural element. What made you want to explore that?
It wasn’t a conscious “departure,” but the original idea can’t be controlled. I should have loved to write an important modern state of the nation book, but I was given this to do instead! I dreamed the house, Sterne—this beautiful eccentric red-brick manor—and then, in imagining who lived in it and what the voice of the story would be, I discovered that there was a supernatural element, and also comedy.
Your last two novels were so specific about time and place. The Uninvited Guests is set more generally, in the pre-World War I English countryside. But the ambiguity felt deliberate.
Yes, it was. The action never leaves Sterne, and I used theatre to heighten the sense of unreality so that the reader might know they were heading off somewhere unpredictable. I was trying to create a magical realm akin to the transforming woods of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a time and place where anything might happen. It was a tricky piece of acrobatics, and it requires the reader’s trust and willingness to jump in with the book and revel a little.
What research did you do?
There was very little research compared to Small Wars, which was necessarily rigorous. I wandered the Internet, went to the National Gallery and looked at John Singer Sargent’s paintings of Edwardian socialites and read a 1920s edition of Mrs Beeton’s household management. There were wonderful descriptions of how to apply poultices to boils and what to do with a twice-boiled calf’s head that informed the more grotesque elements of the novel. The Edwardian era is a very entertaining mix of the recognizably modern and absolutely not, their delight in gelatin being a good example.
Right now stories set in England around WWI are very hot (all my friends have “Downton Abbey” fever!). Why do you think people are so interested in that time period?
I suppose it’s the zeitgeist, isn’t it? I had no notion, beginning work in 2009, that there would be a wave of fin de siècle drama or literature—or a vogue for literary ghost stories for that matter. I simply needed a time we perceive as beautiful and romantic and yet trembles on the brink of the unknown. Western civilization was at a peak, both culturally and scientifically; to me that generation sits like white icing on the dark slag heap of the century before it, looking blindly toward the new century, the mass suicide of the Great War. My little book doesn’t even begin to cover it.
You earned a lot of acclaim for your previous novels. How do you think that kind of success prepares a writer for whatever comes next?
The benefits of having a tremendously successful first novel far outstrip any perceived drawbacks. The success of The Outcast gave me a career. I feel now that if I do good work it will be read and have a fighting chance to stand out. It sounds a simple thing, but it is as much as any writer can hope for.
What other eras would you like to explore?
I would very much like to write a modern novel—I just haven’t found one yet.
Read a review of The Uninvited Guests.