Chatto & Windus £12.99

The Uninvited Guests, By Sadie Jones

Upending every convention of the Edwardian country-houseromance, this complex novel is full of sad ghosts and dark secrets

Sadie Jones's first two novels earned cash and cachet. They were suspenseful, realist dramas whose concerns and conflicts anatomised the structures of claustrophobic British postwar society. The Outcast featured a boy who falls foul of convention in Home Counties commuter land. Small Wars set the ethical dilemmas of a British Army officer stationed in Cyprus amid the war zone of his marriage.

Publishers, on the whole, turn nervous when authors established in one genre deliver something different, and The Uninvited Guests must initially have caused Chatto a moment of anxiety. For while this new book is again historical, it's a horse of a quite different colour to the others. Full marks to them for publishing it in a way that accurately reflects its complexities. All the same, some of Sadie Jones's readers are likely to be a little bewildered.

From its breathless, rambling nine-line first sentence to its sign-off: "Curtain", The Uninvited Guests suggests a whimsical Edwardian entertainment, in the way of Saki's The Unbearable Bassington or a period drawing-room farce.

Like The Unbearable Bassington, it takes place in 1912, but instead of London clubland, the setting is a remote and run-down country house called Sterne. Here the Torrington family are preparing to celebrate the elder daughter, Emerald's, 20th birthday. They're a vague, unconventional bunch, the Torringtons, directionless and self-absorbed; the mother Charlotte, worst of all. Emerald and her brother Clovis still mourn their dead father, Horace, and resent their new stepfather: a one-armed Irish lawyer, Edward Swift, who's the only sensible person in the cast but unfortunately absent – on the urgent business of saving Sterne – for the entire 24 hours of the action. And if I've failed to mention Smudge, the very youngest Torrington, it's because her family neglect her, too. She spends most of the novel ill in bed and planning "Grand Undertakings" involving inappropriate use of the household's pets.

Emerald's bluestocking friend Patience and her sawbones brother Ernest bring news from the station of a dreadful train accident. Soon afterwards, a large group of third-class passengers from the derailed train descends, seeking sanctuary. They're deposited in the morning room and largely forgotten. Finally, one more survivor arrives, a larger-than-life gentleman named Charles Traversham-Beechers, whom Ma Torrington is shocked to recognise. Cue anticipation of dark secrets from the past.

Up to this point, the novel wears a desultory, meandering air. We're all waiting for something to happen. Emerald weeds the garden and broods on the fate of the house; Clovis lies about sulking; Charlotte wanders around making derogatory comments. Occasionally, someone considers looking in on Smudge. But Traversham-Beechers's arrival stirs everyone up, and not in a good way. He's an unpleasant force who sets friend against friend, the children against their mother. He causes everyone to face unpleasant truths about themselves, but at long last brings the story to life.

It would be a mistake to see this novel as mere pastiche. It's playing with form and satirising it. Connoisseurs may derive pleasure from identifying the tropes of the country house genre that it addresses and subverts.

Sterne is no Downton Abbey, and the author denies us all Downton's traditional romantic pleasures. Rather than being an ancestral family seat, Sterne has sheltered Torringtons for hardly any time at all. The family has no deep-seated relationship with land or community. Emerald refuses early on the attentions of the wealthy tenant farmer, its potential saviour, and this element of the story is wrapped up in a most far-fetched way at the end. The archetypal outsider-who-changes-everything is Traversham-Beechers, but he does so in a way that no Edwardian novelist would have dared, by forcing the protagonists to abandon propriety and instead embrace instinct and passion. His methods involve a thrillingly ruthless party game called Hind and Hounds, which would make a rather good TV reality show. The novel is a ghost story, but disappointingly the ghosts are sad or sinister rather than scary.

The genre's usual arch style is deliberately exaggerated, sometimes to questionable effect. Mrs Trieves, the buttoned-up housekeeper, "has sweated through the thick black silk between her arms and between her breasts. Her thighs were hot, the damp cotton of her drawers rubbed in grubby wrinkles ..." The food, the mock turtle soup, the chocolate and green birthday cake, the pies and tarts, pile up with ridiculous opulence. And the neglected rail crash victims offer no new line of inquiry, instead forming a tragi-comic chorus, swarming in and out of the rooms singing popular songs as they wait for food and comfort and news of when they can leave.

Stylish, witty and inventive it may be, but The Uninvited Guests is perhaps too much about the writer at play to satisfy Sadie Jones's hungry fans.

Arts & Entertainment
Rocker of ages: Chuck Berry
music

Risking ridicule, they are driven by a burning desire to keep entertaining

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio (left) could team up with British director Danny Boyle for the Steve Jobs (right) biopic
film
Arts & Entertainment
The next wig thing: 'Drag Queens of London'
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams as Arya and Rory McCann as The Hound
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Rush hour: shoppers go sale crazy in Barkers, Kensington
film
VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
Juliette Binoche and Ralph Fiennes play Catherine and Heathcliff in Pete Kosminsky's 1992 movie adaptation of Wuthering Heights
booksGoogle Doodle celebrates Charlotte Brontë's 198th birthday
Arts & Entertainment
Robin Thicke with his Official Number 1 Award for 'Blurred Lines', the most downloaded track in UK music history
Music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Rory Kinnear in his Olivier-winning role as Iago in Othello
Theatre
Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones now
tvMajor roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show on TV
Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

Arts & Entertainment
Tom Baker who played the Doctor longer than any other actor
tv
Arts & Entertainment
Ken Loach (left) and Mike Leigh who will be going head to head for one of cinema's most coveted prizes at this year's Cannes Film Festival

film
Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Brits who migrate to Costa del Sol more unhappy than those who stay at home

    It's not always fun in the sun: Moving abroad does not guarantee happiness

    Brits who migrate to Costa del Sol more unhappy than those who stay at home
    Migrants in Britain a decade on: They came, they worked, they stayed in Lincolnshire

    Migrants in Britain a decade on

    They came, they worked, they stayed in Lincolnshire
    Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

    Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

    The 'Thick of It' favourite thinks the romcom is an 'awful genre'. So why is he happy with a starring role in Sky Living's new Lake District-set series 'Trying Again'?
    Why musicians play into their old age

    Why musicians play into their old age

    Nick Hasted looks at how they are driven by a burning desire to keep on entertaining fans despite risking ridicule
    How can you tell a gentleman?

    How can you tell a gentleman?

    A list of public figures with gallant attributes by Country Life magazine throws a fascinating light on what it means to be a gentleman in the modern world
    Pet a porter: posh pet pampering

    Pet a porter: posh pet pampering

    The duo behind Asos and Achica have launched a new venture offering haute couture to help make furry companions fashionable
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: The mutiny that sent a ripple of fear through the Empire

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    The mutiny that sent a ripple of fear through the Empire
    Hot stuff: 10 best kettles

    Hot stuff: 10 best kettles

    Celebrate St George’s Day with a nice cup of tea. Now you just need to get the water boiled
    Sam Wallace: Why Giggs is perfect fit as Manchester United boss... in the longer term

    Sam Wallace

    Why Ryan Giggs is perfect fit as Manchester United boss... in the longer term
    Renaud Lavillenie: The sky's the limit for this pole vaulter's ambitions

    Renaud Lavillenie: The sky's the limit for this pole vaulter's ambitions

    Having smashed Sergei Bubka's 21-year-old record, the French phenomenon tells Simon Turnbull he can go higher
    Through the screen: British Pathé opens its archives

    Through the screen

    British Pathé opens its archives
    The man behind the papier mâché mask

    Frank Sidebottom

    The man behind the papier mâché mask
    Chris Marker: Mystic film-maker with a Midas touch

    Mystic film-maker with a Midas touch

    Chris Marker retrospective is a revelation
    Boston runs again: Thousands take to the streets for marathon as city honours dead and injured of last year's bombing

    Boston runs again

    Thousands of runners take to the streets as city honours dead of last year
    40 years of fostering and still holding the babies (and with no plans to retire)

    40 years of fostering and holding the babies

    In their seventies and still working as specialist foster parents