The Uninvited By Liz Jensen
Oh, you naughty little devils!
Sunday 22 July 2012
Liz Jensen is not an author who stays within specific genre boundaries. Potentially confusing for bookshops, this attribute is as tantalising to readers as it is high-risk for publishers. Part science-fiction, part thriller, part cautionary tale, Jensen's latest does not slide neatly into an easily identifiable genre, but is no less powerful for taking the risk. It is perhaps closest in nature to her last novel, The Rapture, a best-selling eco disaster story.
The Uninvited opens with a seven-year-old girl calmly placing a nail gun to her grandmother's neck and firing it. The press reports the shocking crime as an isolated incident, but other families begin to suffer similarly horrific attacks at the hands of their own children.
Elsewhere, the handsome but emotionally inaccessible Hesketh Lock is investigating a strange industrial scandal in Taiwan. Lock is no brooding Rochester-lite hero, he is a man with Asperger's syndrome. An anthropologist, he works for a City firm reporting on incidents of corporate sabotage. Fascinated by the behavioural patterns he can analyse but struggles to identify with, he is excelling professionally – until his Taiwanese contact commits suicide. On his next case, a Swedish subject runs into the path of an oncoming vehicle, and in Dubai, Lock's interviewee leaps from a half-built skyscraper. Meanwhile, the domestic killings multiply.
At this point, what seemed like a dense corporate thriller becomes something far more chilling. Lock discovers a link between the phenomena: both the children and his professional subjects seem to be victims of a type of culturally specific possession. Jensen's gift for detail proves essential here, as she broadens into sci-fi territory. The devil is, literally, in the detail. The possessed start wearing sunglasses, as light affects their eyes, they inexplicably develop multiple kidneys and a lust for salt, which renders the image of a seven-year-old enjoying a bag of crisps utterly terrifying.
The ever-rational Lock is fascinated by the puzzles that these cases present, until his stepson Freddy makes the case altogether more personal. Initially, Lock is a narrator upon whom it is hard to get any emotional purchase. His staccato observations, penchant for origami and insistence on matching everyone's skin tone to a Dulux paint chart all flirt with the gimmicky, and his perfunctory-to-the-point-of-comical pillow talk risks caricature. Yet his devotion to little Freddy transforms his voice from painfully detached to one which makes the heart ache.
As difficult to read as it is to put down, The Uninvited is a masterclass in creepiness – as unsettling as Margaret Atwood or Kazuo Ishiguro but with modern detail such as Skype calls, industrial espionage and Twitter. It is this hybrid of haunted souls and capitalist cautionary tale that gives the novel its power.
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