First published in 2012
The Uninvited Guests is Sadie Jones’ third novel. It is set in April 1912 in a country house which goes by the name of Sterne. The story begins on protagonist Emerald Torrington’s twentieth birthday.
The novel opens with the character of Charlotte, the wife of Edward Swift who was cruelly crippled at the age of 23, and mother to Emerald, Clovis and Smudge. After Clovis and Emerald make an appearance in the novel, Charlotte’s youngest child Imogen, a girl with a ‘sooty halo’ who is affectionately and inexplicably known as Smudge throughout, is soon introduced. The children are left to their own devices and are masters in their own upbringings. It is clear that the Torrington Swift family in its entirety are not part of the ‘local set’. Jones has given the novel a sense of them being almost entirely isolated from their community.
The Uninvited Guests is a rather amusing novel. Charlotte’s children from her first marriage, Clovis and Emerald, dislike their mother’s new husband – ‘single arm notwithstanding, they found he did not fit’. They despise the fact that he is so unlike their deceased father Horace, both in terms of his looks and demeanour.
Jones includes a wonderful array of character details from the outset. Charlotte is portrayed as almost saintly and accommodating at first, and Edward as infinitely patient. Clovis and Emerald come across as incredibly spoilt and put upon by everything which is asked of them, but their characters alter believably as the novel progresses. The personality traits which Jones has used are incredibly interesting. Perhaps the best examples of these are Emerald who ‘favoured the wearing of a rakish bowler but could not always find it’, Charlotte ‘who had many good qualities, but was ruthlessly self-serving’, and local businessman John Buchanan who ‘was the most geometric of men: absolutely symmetrical with no tricky corners or contours to describe to the onlooker’.
The ‘uninvited guests’ of the novel’s title arrive at Sterne as the consequence of a ‘dreadful accident’, where a train careered from the tracks miles away from any station. Those affected have to be ‘put up’ at the house. The characters from the crash are a motley assortment who soon break down the class divide at Sterne. They disrupt the routines which have been set in stone for years, and change the outlooks of those in the house as a consequence. They serve to shake the very foundations of the house and those within it. Like the lives of its young inhabitants, Sterne begins to crumble into disrepair.
Jones’ descriptions, particularly those of Sterne’s scenic surroundings, are vivid, enabling the setting to come to life before the reader’s eyes. The images which the author sculpts are very original in places. The grounds of Sterne, for example, are compared to a ‘cake-stand left behind in the landscape by some refined society of giants’, and blades of grass are depicted as ‘claws’. Some of the sentences are incredibly long and complex in their construction, and are reminiscent of the writing style which Virginia Woolf is famous for.
The Uninvited Guests seems almost farcical in places, essentially a comedy of manners. Theatrical elements are entwined throughout the story, meeting with exacting Edwardian standards and a cast of colourful characters, ranging from the adorable and naïvely hilarious Smudge to the mothering Emerald, from reticent Ernest to headstrong Florence.
The third person perspective which is used throughout allows Jones to follow all of her characters with equal vigour and patience. The dialogue is often witty and shows clashes between differing characters very well. Examples of this include the sibling rivalries between Clovis and Emerald and teasing exchanges between those who know each other well, particularly the case with Charlotte and Florence. The dialogue also brings new characters into the dimensions of the story, when they are described within the conversations of others.
To conclude, Jones’ writing has certainly matured since The Outcast. The Uninvited Guests seems like a far more grown-up novel. This was an incredibly interesting read, so unlike her previous novels in terms of its style and execution. The only small reservation I had with the book is that two of the characters, Ernest and Myrtle, do seem rather flat in comparison with their counterparts. The overall story, however, is a riveting and wholly enjoyable read.