The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones

17th May 2012

*I received this book from the publisher Harper through TLC Book Tours in exchange for an honest review.

Morning rooms, walks in the gardens, and pearl-handled butter knives are the trappings of the Torrington family on the Sterne estate – an estate the now-deceased Mr. Torrington wanted for his family. Unfortunately, the grandeur of Sterne is a facade, as the family can no longer sustain their “lord of the manor” lifestyle, and the book opens with Charlotte Torrington’s new husband Edward Swift departing for London to repair the family’s financial situation. Emerald and Clovis, Charlotte’s adult children, are neither impressed nor appreciative, but it’s Emerald’s birthday, and they are expecting guests. When a local train is derailed in the vicinity, however, Sterne is called into service, forcing the Torringtons and their guests to amend their plans and make the best of the intrusion. The train passengers, initially about 10 of them, are put into the morning room, only to multiply each time someone opens the door. A strange, unsettling man, Charlie Traversham-Beechers, alights at Sterne and claims to know Charlotte. But Traversham-Beechers becomes increasingly sinister until his purpose is unmistakeable to the small, conflicted party.

I couldn’t quite get my head around The Uninvited Guests. At first, it’s such a polite novel with undertones of class and financial struggles. However, the longer I read this book, the more I enjoyed it and saw it as an allegory for the fall of the Edwardian era and the changes Britain would soon see with the start of World War I:

Sterne itself has two wings: the Old House and the New House. Both are in disrepair, but the Old House is never inhabited. Life is already changing for these types of families, and the Torringtons are concerned with preserving the appearance of upper class, though there are only two servants, and the cook’s relationship with Charlotte is quite familiar.

When the uninvited guests – the passengers from the derailed train – arrive, no one is particularly concerned about them, other than to worry about the extra work they will cause, and the longer the passengers are denied attention, the more restless they become, and their numbers grow.

Meanwhile, Smudge, the youngest Torrington, is working on a Great Undertaking, and as she gears up for it, the weather changes:

…there was a smell of thunder on the air. Smudge couldn’t have said what thunder smelled like exactly – something like lively coal-dust, perhaps – but knew that she had always known the thick scent of it, as well as that of lightning, which was sharper and apparent to everybody, like gunpowder and lemons. Yes, there was a storm coming, and…she could smell the air charging.

It’s 1912. Storm clouds are indeed gathering, and as they do, the situation in Britain and in the Sterne household becomes more serious. The small party feeds the mass of people, but their attitudes toward them do not change, particularly Charlotte, who refuses even to help with that chore, saying, “She had built her life so that she might avoid third-class carriages and she wasn’t going to wring her hands over those who made use of them now.”

In fact, it isn’t until Traversham-Beechers introduces a game that debases them all that the Torringtons or their party begin to understand their duty. They open up the Old House, taking linens from their own beds to create pallets and comfortable resting places for the passengers, when they are interrupted by Smudge’s Great Undertaking, which must be resolved before the passengers can find rest and the Sterne household finds peace.

I’m not one to typically try to read into a book as much as I have done here, but bear with me: The typical English estate is failing. The family within (who, it is important to note, are not high born) desperately hold onto it, but the desperation is showing in the furniture without cushions and the diminishing staff. The lower classes are slowly invading these spaces, but it isn’t until a Great Undertaking occurs amid stormy skies (World War I) that change is wrought and the lower classes are welcomed into the Old House, tying both new and old together and decreasing the gap between upper and lower classes.

Could I be completely off base? Of course. Was I looking for a way to explain this oddity of a novel? Yes. However, in my experience when you have something that goes into a rather outlandish place, very often there is some sort of extended metaphor. But what you want to really know is: does it work? I’d have to say yes. The novel goes into dark places, much darker than the opening chapters signify, but in the end, its wickedness makes this stand out as a much more interesting novel.

Buy this book from Indiebound or for your Nook.

Also, check out the other stops on the book tour for other opinions.

  • I think I agree with you that this could well be an allegory. I don’t usually try to analyse a book too deeply, but this seems quite a good explanation of the story.

    • I rarely – if ever – give a novel this sort of treatment, but as I said, parts of it were so strange and so blatantly “out there” that I really felt as though there had to be a reason for it. It didn’t feel as though it was absurdity for absurdity’s sake, you know?

  • I too tend not to get into allegory but I found myself contemplating some allegorical ideas of my own (I hesitate to list them here in case they’re spoiler-y) but I love your thoughts as well. This was a comedic and weird novel that had wonderful depth.

    • pickygirl

      Hmm. Well email me because I’m super curious.

  • Andi

    I like books that deal with class issues, and if there’s oddity involved, even better.

    • Lots of oddity involved. Took a look at Goodreads, and it seems people either loved it or hated it.

  • Is it wrong that I would totally pick this book up just for the super awesome cover? Because seriously. That cover is amazing! But it’s also nice to know that the book itself was good. It sounds like the author took some risks and managed to pull them off, which is obviously quite tricky. You’ve certainly intrigued me with this one!

    • Isn’t it fantastic? I’m such a sucker for a truly great cover. The endpaper are magnificent as well. It was definitely a risky book, and I think that’s why people are so divided on it. It didn’t love it, but it certainly interested me.

  • teresareads

    I like this reading! I definitely felt that Jones was trying to get at the social changes going on at the time, but I hadn’t worked out the possible metaphor to this degree. I can’t think of a thing to argue against it.

    • Thanks, Teresa. I usually hate restricting a text in such a way, but it honestly felt like there was something much more going on here, particularly with Smudge’s Great Undertaking. When that happens for me (though rare), I feel like I’m missing something. That’s where this reading came from. The more I saw it, the more I couldn’t NOT see it, if that makes sense.

  • I have to tell you, I am a bit worried about reading this one. I have it. It sounded so good to me but so many have been sort of iffy over it.

    • I was actually worried, too. I kept avoiding reviews but saw a bit here and there that made me nervous. It wasn’t one I actually loved, but it was thoroughly enjoyable.

  • It sounds like there is a great deal going on under the surface in this book, which actually makes me want to read it more!

    Thanks for being a part of the tour.

    • There definitely is!

  • Your allegory has actually made this book sound much more intriguing to me. I’ve been a bit uncertain about reading it myself, but now I am very curious.

    • Like I told Ti, I can see why. It’s definitely a book that’s divided people, and I think it’s one that I may not have liked without the conclusion I came to. It was interesting, though, to retrace the pages and see if it actually stood up to my suspicions.

  • What a thoughtful review, Jenn. I’ve been noting the high levels of buzz following this particular title — masses of fandom in the wake of a fresh publication tend to turn me off reading it right away, which I know is a little (or a lot) snobbish — but I do think I’ll be acquiring this one, soon. I do greatly enjoy novels that begin seemingly innocuously enough, but then take unexpected, well-written, dark turns. I’m certain I’ll also keep your allegory in my thoughts as I read!

    • Thanks, and I am exactly the same way about “popular” titles. I can’t help myself.

      As with any of my review titles, I try to steer clear of any reviews until I’ve read it. It certainly helped with this one.

  • Pingback: Sadie Jones, author of The Uninvited Guests, on tour May 2012 | TLC Book Tours()

  • I really do want to read this book. There is something about it that appeals to me a lot. I have read plenty of mixed reviews, but I’m still intrigued enough to try.