” All stared as the knob turned and the door opened, wider and winder . . . Shuffling together, the passengers began to emerge. The room tipped them out like beetles poured from a shoebox. These seemed so many of them, surely there had only been a dozen or so? Now they were at least twenty-five. ” (Ch.3, p.116)
At a glance The Uninvited Guests appeal is two fold: the setting in an Edwardian house and the scene is Downtown Abbey territory. The estate, called Sterne, somewhere not too far from Manchester, is the home of the Torrington-Swifts, who are, at the beginning of the novel, deep in preparation for a birthday of Emerald, the middle child of the family. The manor has fallen into disrepair and is caked on debt. Jones luxuriates in delineating the details of preparations, affording a mood that is both light and hallucinatory. The story unfolds slowly like a reverie, as if we’re gliding through a dream in an isolated house that generates its own society.
Safely ensconced in her room with Lady, behind her stout, locked door, restored by smelts and grateful for the continued distraction of the demanding survivors, Smudge applied herself to the animal’s portrait with renewed vigour. (Ch.3, p.147)
The light and comic tone quickly peters out and is replaced by a more surreal nuance. What happens next will show how lightly we perch on what feels like solid ground. When the guests arrive for Emerald’s birthday dinner, they bring upsetting news: A dreadful train accident has occurred nearby, and the Great Central Railway has decreed that Sterne must take in the survivors. Soon, to the distracted annoyance of the Torrington-Swifts and their guests, an entourage of third-class passengers, torn and tarnished, emerges into the house and is promptly deposited into the morning room so that the family can get on with its dinner.
She would stand at her open window to cool down, and, after a good scrub with lye soap, she would rub lavender water into her hands to banish traces of silver polish. No one would know she had downgraded herself. (Ch.2, p.80)
The Uninvited Guests is no Downton Abbey, although Jones takes upon sharp class distinctions and snobbery. Keeping appearance is what supersedes everything else—even when it comes to being kind and giving to those in need. Charlotte would make sure she is alone and unobserved before she gets her hand on the house chore—the work of a maid. The maid herself also adopts the high attitude of her mistress, treating the hapless passengers with distaste. As the night works up a storm, physically and metaphorically, more unsavory survivors arrive, demanding sustenance, the family’s youngest child leads a pony upstairs for her charcoaling portrait. In a most unpleasant game the low and lusty past of the lady is unmasked. Amidst all these events, everything that seems permanent becomes uprooted and subverted. Despite the stark change in narrative tone, the twist is obvious to me from early on, leaving not much to expect. Jones writes well and thoughtfully, but I was primarily attracted to the novel for the particular period and plot, not so much the twist. I wish she has pursued more about the cultural and social clash between the host of the house and its recipients. The book is nonetheless an enjoyable read but it doesn’t measure up my expectation.
254 pp. Harper Perennial. Paper. [
Read/Skim/ Toss] [ Buy/Borrow]