Book review: The Uninvited Guests

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At the end of her new book, Jones acknowledges her latest offering is “something of a new direction”.

There is a passage in the second half of The Uninvited Guests, which makes you think: “Did I read that correctly?” It goes: “Just then, Emerald barked. Then Clovis, too, barked. He was quickly followed by Ernest, with the booming bark of a bloodhound, and Patience’s high-pitched yap, like a Yorkshire terrier.”

With names like that, they could well be canines but are in fact the lead characters in this, Sadie Jones’s third novel. It follows The Outcast, which won the Costa First Novel Award, and Small Wars, long-listed for the Orange Prize. At the end of her new book, Jones acknowledges her latest offering is “something of a new direction”. No kidding, Sadie; even the PR blurb calls it “highly unusual”.

Jones leaves behind the Fifties, in which her first books were set, and joins a growing brigade of novelists and film-makers appealing to Downton Abbey anoraks – the Downtanoraks – who are obsessed with the death throes of Edwardian society. Except Jones then goes further and tries her hand at some supernatural drama.

It’s spring 1912 and Emerald Torrington is preparing to celebrate her 20th birthday, in a big old house in the shires with her mother Charlotte, brother Clovis, sister Smudge, various friends plus a couple of horses, a dog and servants. Suddenly news comes of a train crash nearby (an appropriate metaphor) and a crowd of survivors takes refuge in the morning room. Up until this point, it is like watching a slightly dull play (Jones’s style is very much that of a playwright). But then it just gets weird. A mystery man called Traversham-Beechers muscles his way into the birthday dinner, a vicious party game called Hinds and Hounds ensues, hence the barking, and a defecating horse is hidden in a bedroom.

I suppose the Downtanoraks might like the quirky, Dame Maggie Smith vernacular: “Patience is a long toil up a muddy field; he’s beyond horror.” But if they want fabulous Edwardiana, they’d be better off with the opening chapter of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, while those looking for a ghost story could find no finer one than Sarah Waters’s truly scary The Little Stranger.

The Uninvited Guests is more like The Sixth Sense – the Bruce Willis movie – meets a poor man’s Edward St Aubyn, who does posh, dark comedy to perfection. Barking might be too harsh a description for it. An aberration isn’t.

The Uninvited Guests

by Sadie Jones

Chatto & Windus, 272pp, £12.99