Secrets in the pre-WWI English countryside
There is an air of faded gentility hovering around Sterne, the old manor house at the heart of Sadie Jones’ third novel, The Uninvited Guests. But don’t be fooled: The house and its inhabitants harbor dark secrets that are slowly revealed over the course of this quirky story. Well known for her previous works, especially the award-winning The Outcast, Jones goes down an unexpected road with The Uninvited Guests, featuring elements drawn from ghost stories and period comedies, though her humor is more bitter than sweet.
The events in The Uninvited Guests take place over a single day in the isolated and crumbling Sterne. Charlotte Torrington Swift lives there with her second husband, Edward; two adult children from a previous marriage, Emerald and Clovis; and one younger and oft-ignored daughter, Imogen. The family is at risk of losing the house, and as the novel opens, Edward is leaving to borrow money from a “dreaded industrialist” so he can keep the family on the estate. It is also Emerald’s 21st birthday, and just as guests are arriving to celebrate, a train derailment occurs nearby. Sterne becomes a way station for the displaced passengers, one of whom seems to know a good deal about the family—Charlotte in particular. His presence brings out the worst in all concerned.
Despite the charming opening scene and lyrical language, The Uninvited Guests is filled with a kind of prickly menace and biting wit. The house is remote and decaying; Charlotte is self-centered and neglectful; and the stranded passengers are injured, odorous and distressed. Every character harbors a secret. The class divide between the residents of Sterne and the hapless but encroaching passengers is sharply drawn. The ambiguity of the place and time—somewhere in England, sometime at the beginning of the 20th century—adds to the air of menace that drifts in from the beginning and builds to a horrible crescendo in a scene with echoes of the war to come, which will irrevocably change the lives of these young people.
The macabre plot and acerbic tone of the novel harken back to fiction by earlier British writers such as Saki, Ivy Compton Burnett and Sylvia Townsend Warner. But Jones looks to Edwardian England with a modern sensibility, and she is more likely to slyly subvert than to wax nostalgic. In this way, The Uninvited Guests is the anti-“Downton Abbey,” and Jones’ readers are all the luckier for it.
Read an interview with Jones for The Uninvited Guests.