Set in 1912, The Uninvited Guests is contemporary with the beloved TV series Downton Abbey, and its playful take on class dynamics - and refusal to take itself too seriously - will appeal to fans of that show. That being said, Sadie Jones's novel, although set in an English country house in the early twentieth century, might as well be worlds away from the unstudied privilege enjoyed by Lord and Lady Grantham of Downton Abbey.
The Torrington family is on the brink of insolvency, occupying a largely vacant manor house that's on the verge of needing to be sold and is inhabited by far more rodents than people. As the novel opens, Edward Swift - second husband to Charlotte, stepfather to Emerald, Clovis, and Imogen (Smudge) - is off to London to see about a loan that can save Sterne, his beloved wife's ancestral home. His return a mere twenty-four hours later, in the wake of what must surely be one of the more memorable and bizarre birthday parties in the history of English literature, finds the family in quite different circumstances.
Overnight, the Torringtons, who have invited a number of Emerald's childhood friends and neighbors to celebrate her twentieth birthday, are invaded by more than a dozen survivors of a train crash who have been instructed to shelter at Sterne. As any upper-class family naturally would when confronted by the lower classes, they shut the uninvited guests up in the morning room and carry on with their own celebration. But when a more well-to-do traveler also seeks shelter at Sterne and a place at the table, the evening begins to take on a different tone.
What's delightful about The Uninvited Guests - in addition to its sharp sense of social satire and the reader's frisson of horror as he or she realizes what's really about to happen at this birthday party - are Jones's spot-on details, related with both humor and wry commentary. There's youngest daughter Smudge, for example, capitalizing on the distractions of the day to relocate the family pony, Lady, to her own bedroom. Or the description of the overworked housekeeper, Mrs. Trieves, clearly at the end of her rope even as she primly announces that dinner is served: "With that, the door opened, and Florence Trieves, tidy but for a shred of leek in her hair, and a wild expression, confronted them."
Writing a review of The Uninvited Guests without giving away the significant plot twists is something of a challenge; suffice it to say that Jones pulls readers into the drawing-room with what appears at first to be a classic English country-house tale, but winds up becoming something quite a bit darker, and thoroughly unexpected. Using the country house novel as a commentary on social class is nothing new - what's surprising and innovative about this one is the particularly daring and delightful ways in which Jones does so. This many-sided novel, which constantly confounds and even dashes expectations, is not for everyone; but for those who like their reading with a dash of surprise and a soupcon of satire, The Uninvited Guests will be very welcome indeed.
This review was originally published in June 2012, and has been updated for the January 2013 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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