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.