Every page of “The Uninvited Guests” by Sadie Jones is a delight. The first page introduces the members of an eccentric family breakfasting in their Edwardian country home, Sterne. Charlotte, sits to the left of her one-armed second husband Edward Swift. Her eldest children, Emerald and Clovis Torrington, neither like nor approve of their step-father, even though he is about to travel to Manchester to try to raise money to save Sterne. Even as Clovis curls his lip “loathingly,” Edward remains unflappable, cheerfully advising him not to worry, but to “enjoy Emerald’s birthday and try not to fret. I’m sorry I can’t be here for your guests.”
For it is Emerald’s 20th birthday and guests have been invited for an evening dinner. Patience — referred sneeringly by the Torringtons as “Insignificance” — Sutton and her brother Ernest will be staying over. Wealthy neighbor John Buchanan, who had bought a farm from the estate the year before to tide the impecunious family over, is an impulsive last-minute addition to the party.
The stage is brilliantly set for what appears at first glance to be a quirky comedy of manners. But in Jones’ capable hands, this satire of a country house saga quickly turns to something much darker and more sinister: a scathing dissection of class and a surprisingly convincing ghost story.
Just as the invited guests have arrived, the Torringtons are compelled to host an endlessly expanding number of victims of a horrible accident on the local railway’s branch line. Emerald bears the brunt of the chaos:
She ought to entertain the Suttons, she must telephone the Railway — yet here she was, once more forced to support her drooping, weak-stemmed, climbing vine of a sun-seeking mother. She drew a steadying breath.
Nine-year-old Imogen, or Smudge, the youngest Torrington, opens the door to a lone passenger:
‘My name is Charlie Traversham-Beechers. Is the lady of the house about at all? Perhaps you might . . . fetch her?’ Again he showed his white teeth to Smudge.
‘Imogen Torrington,’ said Smudge at last, and in a whisper. She was a confident enough child in her own realm, but this plainly wasn’t it.
The devilish straggler ingratiatingly worms his way to a place at the dinner table — even as the other uninviteds are stuck in Sterne’s morning room and study. Emerald insists that the passengers be fed, chastising her mother for rudeness.
Charlotte cared not a jot for rudeness. She had built her life so that she might avoid third-class train carriages and she wasn’t gong to wring her hands over those who made use of them now.
The evening deteriorates in unimaginable ways. At the height of a raging storm, the menacingTravisham-Beecher urges the dinner party on in a cruel and pointless parlor game of his own devising. The ill-attended Smudge, meanwhile, is involved in an hilarious “Great Undertaking”that revolves around secreting the family pony in her upstairs bedroom. Yet even amid this mind-boggling chaos love blooms unexpectedly — for Emerald, for Clovis, and for the invited guests.
By the next morning, the events of the evening before seem a shared hallucination:
They could not seem to make it stick.
Still, if anyone were to doubt the veracity of their hosting the hoards at Sterne, the harshest of undeniable truths was the mess. No birthday party any of them had known or dreamed of could have produced the like.
Jones’ pitch-perfect voice is drolly disarming — and brilliantly her own. The Torringtons — and their guests — are among the most entertaining characters in recent fiction. “The Uninvited Guests” deserves a place at the top of any list of must-reads.
“The Uninvited Guests” by Sadie Jones and published by Harper is available on amazon.com and at your favorite New York bookstore.