Here’s a terrific book for those who can’t get enough of Downton Abbey and want to take that experience into their reading. Set in Edwardian England, The Uninvited Guests visits some of the same themes of class and deeply held secrets, but adds a touch of strangeness that makes the book feel increasingly Gothic.
Emerald Torrington’s twentieth birthday celebration is overshadowed by circumstances. Her beloved house, Sterne (ok, it’s no Downton Abbey, but it is home) is under threat of foreclosure, and her stepfather has to leave, hat in hand, to try to borrow money. While amiable, he doesn’t hold a candle to her real father, dead these three years. Her mother is shallow and self-centered, frequently absent from family obligations. Her younger brother is petulant and resentful. A neighbor and childhood friend may or may not be paying her court. And the only people invited to the party are also childhood friends thought of with the mild contempt of those who have not seen each other in many years. Oh, yes, there’s her little sister, everyone’s afterthought.
None of that tops the final indignity. A train crash on a nearby branch line strands several passengers, who show up on the doorstep. Third-class passengers, they are poorly dressed, somewhat smelly, and many are definitely odd-looking. Since they were sent by the railway, Emerald has no choice but to take them in and give them temporary shelter. She even gives up her birthday meal – not the cake, though – to feed the ever-increasing number of passengers. She and her guests scrape the larder to meet the passengers’ demands, and in doing so create a fellowship among themselves that ignites new and interesting dynamics.
Then a lone first-class passenger, Charlie Somebody Something (no one can remember his name) arrives and is invited to join the dinner party. He gradually insinuates himself into the role of host, dominating the younger people and exposing them to dark and worldly knowledge. His power over the group is such that he convinces them to play a cruel and frightening game that shatters their tenuous bond and reveals a devastating secret.
The novel slowly shifts into a claustrophobic atmosphere in which all kinds of boundaries fall, including the boundary between the solid world and the spiritual realm. As the night progresses, it seems that all of the young people reach a moment of revelation that forever separates them from innocence and childhood.
And that younger sister, still in the throes of childhood? Eleven-year old Smudge has the run of the house and takes full advantage of it to pull off what she calls her “Great Undertaking.” The consequences of that Undertaking will collide with the family’s responsibilities towards the stranded passengers and bring the evening’s events to a bizarre and disquieting close.
Jones is effective at creating an unsettled feel through her descriptions. Wherever there is a choice of adjectives she chooses the darkest alternative. She finds ways to describe the smells of cooking and of wet clothing and candles to bring us into an old and crowded house, and picks characteristics of each person that establishes them in the reader’s mind. In many ways certain plot points are ambiguous, but reading back over the storyline, you discover that she planted seeds that lead to some kind of answer. Our book groups enjoyed dissecting the story, and many of the readers provided the kind of insights that make other members view it in a new light.
Check the WRL catalog for The Uninvited Guests
It will also be available beginning August 2013 as a Gab Bag for book discussion groups.