If you’re like me then you’ve been spending the past eight or so months counting down every second until Downton Abbey will reappear on your television. I’m a sucker for all things Edwardian and when Sadie Jones’ The Uninvited Guests arrived on The Daily Circuit book table this spring with its lovely cover, I promptly snagged it – and promptly forgot about it. But luckily for me the book re-emerged from my stack at home recently and fully absorbed my weekend. Not another English country manor book, I hear you groaning, but bear with me…
The Uninvited Guests is set entirely on the eve of the last day of April 1912, in Sterne Manor. The Torrington-Swifts are preparing for the birthday dinner of Emerald, their middle daughter who is turning 20, and who also happens to be the family’s greatest hope for removing themselves from demise-inducing debt if only they can land her a rich husband. Charlotte Torrington, the matriarch, has recently remarried after the death of her first husband, and her three children are less then pleased with the turn of events. In an effort to win over the family, Charlotte’s new husband leaves to try and save the house that Emerald and her siblings equate with their father and stability.
As Jones writes:
Her father’s life had been distinguished only by his having the daring to buy Sterne. The house and land had been purchased rashly at the peak of what transpired to be transient — too harsh to call it flukish — financial success when, first married to Charlotte and bathed in her adoration, he had thought Torrington might be the name of the sort of man whose family would live in such a house. Horace had loved Sterne as he loved Charlotte and later, his children: loyally, generously and gratefully.
But the cherished house, much like the family’s tenuous position on the upper edges of society, is under attack. As the birthday dinner is set to begin a mysterious railroad accident occurs nearby, sending dozens of survivors into Sterne, where Charlotte demands they stay locked in the parlor until they can be dealt with. But, of course, the railway guests began to break out of their locked room, and with each page it seems that more and more of their creepy lot are appearing all over Sterne. Emerald’s elaborate feast, sumptuously described by Jones, ends up all over the floor and walls, a mud-covered pony finds its way into top floors of the home and a seedy stranger from first class on the ill-fated train appears looking for revenge against Charlotte that threatens to destroy the family from the inside out. The privileged life that Charlotte wants so badly is uprooted and roles are tossed around until it’s unclear what and whom the uninvited really are.
What starts out as lovely Downton Abbey plot complete with descriptions of china and heirloom jewelry winds up somewhere in the dark, strange and hilarious land of the likes of Twin Peaks. Jones’ mastery is in using the flippant, light setting of a fancy birthday dinner to trick her reader into a safe space before throwing all of their assumptions right back at them, complete with bad jokes and handsome, evil, suitors.
So, while we all count down the days until Downton and Maggie Smith return, treat yourself to a stranger, but just as pleasing look into the lives of diminishing – you won’t be disappointed.
– Maddy Mahon, assistant producer