Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Book Review - Sadie Jones's The Uninvited Guests

The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones
Published by: Harper
Publication Date: May 1st, 2012
Format: Hardcover, 272 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy

Emerald Torrington is turning twenty. To celebrate there is to be a party at Sterne with her closest friends and family. Yet the family is preoccupied with the fact that unless Charlotte's second husband comes through, they are to lose Sterne. Charlotte stays ensconced in her room as her daughter Emerald busies herself with the preparation for the party, while her son Clovis lounges about, which is what Clovis does best. Her youngest, Smudge, is plotting how to get another animal silhouette on her bedroom wall while the family is busy with the party... Lady the horse is going to be a lot more tricky than the cats or dogs. The maid Mytle and the cook Florence Trieves are in a state trying to get ready for the arrival of the Suttons, Ernest and his sister Patience, as well as John Buchanan, who has been buying up local estates and covets Sterne. Yet all this is pushed to one side when there's a horrible train accident nearby and Sterne is needed to house those who were in the accident.

The upheaval of unexpected guests on the night of a big dinner party is a big to-do, but they all do what they can. There are only a few people after all. But when Charlie Traversham-Beechers walks through that door and back into Charlotte's life, the victims from the accident are the least of their worries. Charlie is invited to dinner, as he is dressed for the occasion, minus a tie... he is a cut above the other ragged souls that have been displaced by the accident. Yet he brings a malevolence with him. A cheerful party becomes mean and vicious. Parlor games taunt and torture, versus entertain. It is as if the devil himself has come into their midst and has unleashed everyone's inhibitions. The passengers also start to increase in number and become more and more rowdy and demanding. Why hasn't the railway come to collect them? How much longer will Sterne endure this upheaval? If the inhabitants of the house can just regain control, just until the dawn, perhaps all will be right.... even if there might still be a horse in Sumdge's room.

Imagine Flavia De Luce in a ghost story like The Woman in Black or The Turn of the Screw and you've pretty much got this book. There are two driving narratives, that of the dinner guests and that of Smudge. Smudge is the comedic counterpoint that balances the continuing degradation of the dinner party. Yet Smudge is the key on which the denouement hinges. Personally I felt that the book was a little hard to get into. Not only do you have trouble establishing a time period, if you are like me and avoid book descriptions like the plague because they might spoil the book, you wouldn't know this book is set in 1912. I was totally confused by the combination of cars, carts, and carriages, that I couldn't dive into the book. Also, the plethora of hard to say names didn't help the narrative at all either. Yet, with the arrival of the train passengers I knew that this book could work. As I said at the time: "If this goes where I'm hoping it goes, it's going to be bloody brilliant!" It did go there! I loved that it was willing to embrace not just the Downton Abbey aspects of the story, but the supernatural aspects that the vagueness of details allowed for.

Yet... in the end, it overstayed it's welcome, much like the passengers. There was a distinct feeling of this should end, but it didn't, at least not when it should have. The party is over, now they're dancing, now they're eating, now they're providing beds for all the people, on and on. Sometimes it's best to leave things to the imagination and just fade to morning. I didn't need to read the minutiae of getting the horse out of the house, or of the inhabitants of Sterne redeeming themselves for their pushing aside of the passengers. By overstaying it's welcome, the book took what would have been a brilliant short story and made it a decent book. It really would have been a wicked awesome short story and kept that air of the supernatural, without having it fade away to meaninglessness.

Also, on a completely different note. I loved this book's design. The cover is sheer perfection, well, except for the mistake of Charlie having a tie. But the end papers being Smudge's silhouettes on her wall was wonderful.


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