The Uninvited Guests, By Sadie Jones
Uncanny intrusions into a farcical house-party
Friday 25 January 2013
Sadie Jones's previous novels, The Outcast and Small Wars, were tense realist dramas that questioned the values of a drab post-war Britain. Here she enters new literary territory with a whimsical Edwardian farce that takes its lead from the darker offerings of Saki and JB Priestley.
Sterne, the country house at the heart of the novel, is a crumbling edifice surrounded by creamy magnolias and ancient yews. Here the Torrington family are assembling to celebrate elder daugher Emerald's 20th birthday. They're an unappealing clan. The mother, Charlotte, is vain and self-absorbed; Emerald and her brother Clovis are unnecessarily catty to their kindly step-father, Edward. Finally there is Smudge, a neglected nine-year old who spends her days ill in bed planning her own "Grand Undertaking".
On the day of the party, Edward departs on urgent business to save the house, while Charlotte supervises the skeleton staff in the kitchens. But as the evening approaches comes news of a dreadful accident. A train has derailed and Sterne must host the survivors. Just as Emerald's glamorous guests start to wend their way up the drive, a group of "third-class" passengers are spotted picking their way across the fields to the house.
It's at this point that Jones's playful pastiche adopts a more malevolent tone. Among the febrile travellers is Charlie Traversham-Beechers, a well-spoken gentleman whom Charlotte seems to recognise. He initiates a savage parlour game – a ploy that forces the family to air some unpalatable secrets. Meanwhile Smudge, taking advantage of the growing mayhem, has smuggled her beloved pony, Lady, into the house and up to her bedroom.
Jones gleefully takes the tropes of the country-house drama and pushes them further than any Edwardian, or even Julian Fellowes, would dare. The novel's denouement is satisfyingly outlandish. As you might expect, the snobbish Torringtons are on a collision course with history - one that will leave them, both literally and metaphorically, knee-deep in the mire.
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