Tuesday, April 24, 2012
The Uninvited Guests - review by Nicky Pellegrino
UK author Sadie Jones’ third novel The Uninvited Guests (Chatto & Windus, $37.99) is a supernatural drama, set in the early 1900s, played out against the backdrop of an English country house. But this is no Downton Abbey with ghosts. It is both more contrived and considerably more eccentric than the hit TV series; a theatrical period piece with moral undertones influenced by Saki’s stylish short stories.
All the scenes take place in Sterne, a manor house much loved by the Torrington family who are in dire financial straits and on the brink of losing their home. It's all simply ghastly but, while her stepfather is away on a last bid to raise funds, posh Emerald Torrington is soldiering on with plans to celebrate her 20th birthday with a small dinner party.
A handful of guests are expected and the household is busy. Downstairs in the kitchen the staff are in a frenzy of preparation, upstairs Charlotte, the mistress of the house, is trying to match-make Emerald with a wealthy local man. Meanwhile her mischievous youngest daughter Smudge is planning a risky “Great Undertaking” and her charming but feckless son Clovis (surely a Saki reference) is pleasing himself as usual. And so the main characters are all on stage. But the real action doesn’t begin until the strangers appear.
With their dinner guests arrives some dreadful news. There has been a train accident on the branch line and Sterne must ready itself to take in some of the passengers. The weather readies us for a haunting – there are sudden chills and darkness. Then out of the gloom come the survivors seeking shelter.
At first the Torringtons treat their uninvited guests rather shabbily, shutting them up in the morning room and offering only tea as they try to get on with their party. But there is one among them that can’t be ignored so easily. Charlie Traversham-Beechers is the only first class passenger and a man of dubious charm. He inveigles his way into Emerald’s dinner and proceeds to set one guest against the other with a particularly cruel parlour game. Only Charlotte suspects how destructive he is capable of being.
As the night wears on secrets are revealed, love blooms, a child’s pony finds itself in an unusual situation and more and more demands are made on the Torrington family.
This novel is quite a departure for Jones whose previous work is more conventional and realistic literary fare. For a ghost story it is only mildly spooky but she writes with a light, sure hand, her prose sparkles with wit and there’s a sense of an author really having fun with her characters. The ending is gloriously chaotic yet somehow she manages to tie up all her loose ends in the nick of time.
A diverting read that will entertain more than it will haunt.