Book Review: The Uninvited Guests

By Stephanie Merritt

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The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones
Chatto $37.99

Book cover of The Uninvited Guests. Photo / Supplied
Book cover of The Uninvited Guests. Photo / Supplied

Sadie Jones' highly entertaining third novel seems perfectly conceived to appeal to two popular tastes - fascination with the Edwardian country house and the revival of the English ghost story. The Uninvited Guests marks a stylistic departure for Jones, too - on the surface the tone is lighter and more comic than her two previous novels, The Outcast and Small Wars, which both examined the unravelling of family relationships and the ways violence and tragedy can erupt from repression.

But surfaces can be deceptive, as Jones' characters discover over the course of one satisfyingly stormy night. The conventions of middle class English manners are revealed as too flimsy an overlay to hide the filthy passions and cruelties that seethe underneath.

Sterne is an isolated 18th century manor in northwest England, bought by Horace Torrington and now home to his widow Charlotte and family.

Elder children Emerald and Clovis resent their mother's new husband, Edward Swift, who departs for Manchester one morning in April 1912 in the hope of securing a loan to save Sterne, which is crumbling for lack of funds and may have to be sold.

As storm clouds, literal and metaphorical, gather over the house, preparations begin above and below stairs for a dinner in honour of Emerald's 20th birthday.

Thus far, it's an elegant comedy of manners with the usual undercurrents of jealousy, desire and conflicting loyalties. But the mood changes when Clovis, returning from the station with family friends, brings news of a dreadful accident on a branch line. A mysterious representative of the railway requests that the survivors be put up at Sterne.

These uninvited guests appear as if from nowhere as dusk falls, heralded by a chilling gust of wind; they seem to multiply as the night goes on, and give off a growing scent of decay - though none of this alerts the family, who have not read the novel's epigraph from Byron's Don Juan: "Their table was a board to tempt even ghosts/ To pass the Styx for more substantial feasts."

The ghost story genre is necessarily formulaic, which is perhaps why it continues to fascinate writers. The challenge is to create something new from within its confines. Jones concentrates on the way the unexpected intrusion affects the family and their friends, bringing out their best and worst qualities, revealing long-buried secrets and unexpected depths of passion and rage. Where there should be kindness for the traumatised passengers there is, at first, resentment and impatience at the disruption, made all the sharper by the fact that the incomers are from third-class - all except the dashing, wolfish Charlie Traversham-Beechers, a sinister figure from Charlotte's past.

Jones has a vivid eye for period detail, lingering lovingly on shimmering dresses, hairstyles and jewellery, so that the contrast is all the more vivid as filth, mud and dissolution gradually strip away the glitter and finery that separates the classes, reducing all the characters to a common, almost bestial, humanity. "You were [kind], in the end," murmur the passengers, when all the lessons have been learned.

The Uninvited Guests also carries echoes of Shakespearean comedy. Though menace hovers close to the main characters, it never tips into genuine danger and there is a pleasing resolution, in which everyone assumes their proper place, a little wiser and less proud.

Jones shows that she can turn her talent for story-telling to a more stylised form with a light and playful touch, and without compromising her sharp insights into the human heart.

- OBSERVER

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