Book Review: The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones
To say that The Uninvited Guests was not what I expected is an understatement. Based on the cover (gorgeous, right?) and the four pages of blurbs at the front of the books, six of which compare the book to Downton Abbey, I thought I’d be reading a comedy of manners or a genteel but gently critical view of the Upstairs, Downstairs dynamics of early 20th century classism. Instead, what I experienced was a bizarre tale of a wealthy family on the brink of financial disaster that — BOOM — suddenly became a ghost story full of decay, mad hauntings and vengeful spirits, and a house that literally falls to pieces overnight.
At the heart of The Uninvited Guests is the Torrington family, about to celebrate daughter Emerald’s 20th birthday. (Think of Emerald as the Mary Crawley of the piece, if you will). Mother Charlotte is remarried to the reliable, loving Edward Swift, who in turn is resented by Emerald and her brother Clovis. Alas, the manor house bought decades earlier by their late father Horace is on the verge of financial collapse, and so Edward travels away from home for a night in a last-ditch effort to save the family estate by securing a loan from an unpleasant business acquaintance.
Invited guests — a wealthy neighbor and some dear friends — come to Sterne for the birthday celebration, but unfortunately, so do quite a few uninvited guests, victims of a train derailment somewhere nearby, now stranded and in need of shelter until the railroad can make other arrangements. As the family attempts to carry on with the birthday feast, they neglect their unwanted guests until guilt and unanticipated chaos further disrupt the evening. As events spiral out of control, baser, crueler natures emerge. As the night turns wilder and wilder, the house itself is slowly destroyed from the inside, as filth, rot, rain, and mud overtake it inch by inch, and the family must come together to defeat the elements, both natural and supernatural.
I suppose you could read The Uninvited Guests as an allegory for the rot at the heart of the class system, or an indictment of the type of stiff-upper-lip social demands that keep children at arm’s length from parents and demand propriety at the expense of feeling. I see all that in this book, and yet it just doesn’t work for me. The characters are not sympathetic or even particularly well-defined, the events veer all over the place, and the supernatural elements come and go in ways that feel forced and out place. The weirdly cheerful and sunshine-filled ending was quite dissonant with the rest of the story, and I didn’t feel like this awkward, cold family earned the easy resolution that came their way.
The Uninvited Guests is full of interesting language choices and passages of quite lovely writing. Still, I found the whole to be disjointed and rather unsatisfying.
Ending thoughts: I will acknowledge that perhaps it’s me, not the book. The endless blurbs for this book are completely glowing, and my city’s public library system has chosen The Uninvited Guests as its city-wide read this month. Perhaps I missed something that everyone else saw in it. In any case, all I can offer is my own opinion: While I was never bored, and was even intrigued by certain developments, on the whole, this book just did not work for me.