“The Uninvited Guests” by Sadie Jones (Harper, 262 pages, $24.99)
Sadie Jones’ “The Uninvited Guests,” a novel set at an English country manor called Sterne, landed in my lap just as I’d run out of fresh episodes of “Downton Abbey.” It seemed heaven sent; Jones’ third novel is set in 1912, the very year “Downton” began, on the day and evening of a smallish house party celebrating the 20th birthday of the likable but spoiled eldest daughter of the manor, Emerald Torrington. Lemon cream and leg of lamb are on the menu. Suitors are discussed and people announce they don’t care a fig for things, even, occasionally, the suitors.
In my state of withdrawal from the spoiled, party-throwing Granthams, I might have been a goner on the basis of theme alone, even before Jones put her vividly atmospheric hooks into me. Although Sterne is much less grand than “Downton,” and because of some dire financial circumstances it is staffed by only a few servants, it “shone about itself proudly” an hour before the party, Jones writes.
“A person might walk from a cool corridor full of the scent of lit fires into a bedroom to find the smell of damp flowers from a pot of wild violets and hot starch from the fresh sheets and flat-creased pillow cases.” A person would very much like that.
But “The Uninvited Guests” is niftily deceptive, a far more opaque bit of fiction than “Downton.” It presents with the feathery wit of a comedy of manners, one arch exchange after another taking place between Emerald, her older brother Clovis (prone to listlessly lying about and lots of groaning) and their “drooping, weak-stemmed, climbing vine of a sun-seeking mother.” Charlotte had her heart broken when her first husband died but has since married Edward, a kindly one-armed lawyer whom her older children disdain. (Her third and youngest child, Imogen “Smudge,” is generally forgotten and left to wander the manor on her own, getting into the most amusing kind of trouble involving a pony.)
These Torringtons are a team. They don’t want new players. They just want to continue to live in the style to which they’ve been accustomed, which isn’t possible because they are out of money, unless Edward can rustle something up or Emerald will reconsider the stolid mill owner who lives nearby and has a small fortune. They are not in an entail situation, but they are facing an end and a necessary descent.
Then Jones twists the book in an odd, dreamlike direction that ultimately seems more in keeping with later Henry James than Julian Fellowes. Just when all the corsets have been laced up, there is news of a train derailment on a nearby branch. The Great Central Railway has unilaterally decided to send a group of survivors to Sterne, to be “put up” until further notice. The guests, almost all third-class passengers, aren’t just uninvited, they’re unwelcome, tragic circumstances be damned. “I just wish it hadn’t happened on your birthday,” the crabby but competent housekeeper, Florence Trieves, grumbles to Emerald.
These passengers are willing to be shut in the morning room with nothing more than a cup of tea while the Torrington family entertain their guests, including Emerald’s childhood friend Patience Sutton and her brother Ernest, who had been an “undeniably off-putting child” but is now “altogether different.”
But there is something spooky about how docile the strangers are, and Jones builds momentum toward some disturbing revelations. Why do they seem to keep multiplying, “like flies,” the housemaid says grimly, and when will they go? And what is the connection between the only one of them who gets to dine with the family, first-class passenger Charlie Traversham-Beechers, and Charlotte, whose expression alters “to something like horror” when she sees him?
The reader will probably catch onto the truth about the uninvited guests before the Torrington-Swift clan does, but even so, the novel races compulsively onward and becomes a story of shattered snobbery, transformation of character and in the end a surprising and eerily beautiful portrait of compassion. From the buried sensuality of a middle-aged woman to young love freshly blooming, walls between the past and present are broken down. A family of misanthropic snobs begins a willing descent begun literally and figuratively.
“The Uninvited Guests” is about renewal and rebirth, stirred by external forces but ultimately coming from within. It is a sublimely clever book about generosity, discovered late, yet just in time.