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The Uninvited Guests

May 7, 2012

HarperCollins sent me an advance copy of The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones, and it took a while to find the time to sit down with it, what with all the library renovations, but after I did finally get a chance to start it, I finished the book in one sitting, really not what I was expecting.

I had just finished the first chapter when I noticed that Teresa at Shelf Love said it kept surprising her. So I sat down and proceeded to put some hints and clues together, starting with the way the adults in the novel treat the child–very much as the children who are about to go on a big adventure in Edwardian literature are treated–and ending with the way one of the uninvited guests begins to treat his hosts, with a gleeful disregard for how many polite conventions he is flouting. What did this add up to? Well, not what it turned out to be.

The introduction, if one pays attention, seems to promise what Ann Patchett’s blurb gushes over: “at once a shimmering comedy of manners and a disturbing commentary on class.” But even if the reader pays attention to all the disturbing undercurrents in this story, which opens in the early twentieth century with a plethora of conventions from novels written since 1811 (the beginning of the regency period of the reign of George IV), it’s not easy to see where this story is going. Every time you think something conventional is about to happen—that the little girl is going to go on a big adventure, for instance—something slightly different happens.

The little girl, whose name is Imogen but everyone calls “Smudge,” sneaks down to the stables during a dinner-party and takes her pony out. Rather than going somewhere with the pony, which is what I expected, she takes the pony up the stairs of the house and into her room so that she can draw his outline on the walls of her bedroom.

My expectations were shaped, at one point, by a Regency-Romance-sounding passage in which a young woman thinks of a time when “her beloved father had been ill; her mother had been distraught; her brother arrested by shock; her sacrifice had been required. That had been the end to it. She could not have known that, like an enchanted princess, she would forget so easily everything she had been before. Duty had put a spell upon her heart.” But what follows this passage is one of the many warnings about the macabre turn the story has already taken, although the reader has not yet entirely realized it:
“Smudge traced a finger along the exposed glass slide. ‘It looks like spun sugar. I want to crunch it up,’ she said….’And have blood pour down your chin and die a gruesome death,’ said Clovis.”

After a disturbing game and some cruel revelations about the mother of the family from one of the uninvited guests, the eldest daughter–the virgin whose chances of making a good match might be expected to be the focus of the story had it been a more conventional story—asks that guest “how did you know where to find us?” and he replies “I didn’t at first. But in my position a great many things are revealed.” When she asks “What is your position?” he doesn’t answer, and an unwary reader would continue to assume that this is some kind of conventional mysteriousness on a young man’s part. It is not. Even the wariest of readers still does not suspect the reason that the narrator describes the guest’s eyes as “unhuman.”

Dysfunctional as the family is, however, the actions of the uninvited guests cause them to pull together. Her reputation in tatters, the mother is not repudiated but stoutly defended, and she finally responds with cleverness and some stoutness of her own. The mess that’s been made of the evening by the guests–who are not only uninvited but also so wholly unexpected that it’s like they’ve dropped in from an entirely different novel—is tidied up by the family and their friends in an oddly conventional way.

The story ends with everything made right by the next day: “a spring morning, a tolerably clean house, fresh clothes, love, and four pounds of bacon were to the Torrington-Swifts and their guests the very pinnacle of bliss.” There is little conversation, which makes the ending funny and surreal, as if they’re back in a Regency Romance novel after having covered up the dirt from a modern-day Zombie novel with their old-fashioned, buttoned-up-to-the-neck outfits:
“They had no bread and no eggs either, nothing but the heaped rashers, that were alternately crispy and juicy, wet with hot fat and gorgeously salty.
‘We should keep hens,’ said Emerald.
Charlotte gave a shrug and said, ‘Oh, you know hens, they’re so small-minded,’ to which there was no sensible reply.

That’s kind of like how I felt upon finishing this novel, to which there is no sensible reply, much less review. If you enjoy mash-ups of wildly disparate things, this one might be for you, and it’s out in bookstores right now–just don’t assume you know what’s going on until the proper lady eats the bacon.

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. May 7, 2012 9:05 am

    Bacon always has the last word.

    • May 7, 2012 9:54 am

      I love the description of it as “gorgeously salty”

  2. May 7, 2012 9:32 am

    very interesting. i’m intrigued by the way you describe the book as a mashup; I’m not sure how I’d feel about that. I guess I’d like to know if despite the twists and narrative conventions it still hangs together. i’ll keep an eye out for it!

    • May 7, 2012 9:55 am

      It definitely hangs together. What’s so weird is that the parts that seem to have a modern sensibility are described in that Regency Romance style. If I were to try to sum up my reaction to this book in one word it would be “gobsmacked.”

  3. May 7, 2012 2:27 pm

    Sounds delicious! And gobsmackable seals it. Onto the tbr it goes. (and if I was smart I would run and read it now before I hear another word about it.)

    • May 8, 2012 7:45 am

      Yes–I would read it before the secrets get revealed, because it’s more fun to discover them yourself.

      • May 10, 2012 8:58 am

        I ordered it! Had to buy some gift certificates and then they tempted me with free shipping if… I keep seeing this everywhere.

  4. May 7, 2012 5:54 pm

    It is a really odd book, isn’t it? Fun to read but constantly turning itself on its head and in the end impossible to describe. You’ve done well at capturing the essence of it.

  5. May 8, 2012 7:47 am

    “Constantly turning itself on its head” captures something of the essence, too–it makes me realize how many scenes there are of someone slipping down the stairs!

  6. bookgazing permalink
    May 10, 2012 7:36 am

    I keep thinking this one is going to be very like ‘The Little Stranger’, but it seems perhaps it’s weirder still?

    • May 10, 2012 2:08 pm

      More literally weird; probably less psychologically so. I still have that one on my shelf to be read.

  7. May 15, 2012 2:57 pm

    Mmmmm….bacon!

  8. May 16, 2012 8:30 am

    Although doubtless it’s that limp English bacon. Eleanor and I had some interesting sandwiches with bacon, brie, and cranberry in the lake country, but I prefer American bacon with a little bit of crunch to it.

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