I am a big fan of Sadie Jones’ debut work, The Outcast, which is a compelling, beautiful work. This book takes an entirely new direction. It is still set in the past, but is a comedy of manners and story of the supernatural bound up together. The book wasn’t especially challenging and was definitely on the lighter side. However, it was an engaging, lively read, with plenty of plot twists.
The Torrington family live in the crumbling Sterne house, desperate for money to cling onto their home. The Torrington patriarch has lately died and it is left to Edward Swift, new husband to our matriarch Charlotte and step-father to Emerald, Clovis and Smudge, to resolve the problem. His departure at the start of the story sets in motion the rest of the plot.
It is Emerald’s 20th birthday and she is on the cusp of adulthood, beginning to understand her own attractiveness and taking on the concerns and worries of her home. Clovis, her younger brother, is in the restless young man mould that Jones does so well. He is fighting his natural good humour to punish his family for his not being the man of the house. Smudge, the littlest, seems entirely separate and distanced from the others, partly because of the age gap and partly because she’s off in her own world most of the time. Then we have Florence, housekeeper and someone who shares a significant and mysterious past with Charlotte. Charlotte herself is a vain, rather self-interested character, who is shown to be manipulative and calculated from the opening, leaving us little hints as to what might come.
The story seems to be a family comedy of manners for the first half of the novel, everybody tripping over themselves to get the house ready for Emerald’s party, all of them wrapped up in their own minute concerns and simultaneously anticipating and dreading the arrival of the guests: Ernest and Patience Sutton, childhood friends of Emerald and Clovis and local neighbour John, who has designs on Emerald. All seems to be going to plan until news reaches the family of a dreadful train crash. Displaced passengers are sent up to the house, including one who appears to have a rather sinister purpose. From then on, the story shifts into a spooky telling of the supernatural, with the party and our central characters descending into chaos, revealing their darker, baser instincts as well as their best qualities while under duress.
Jones crafts a wonderful atmosphere of unease and eeriness. You sense all is not right from the moment the uninvited guests of the title arrive. Our central cast observe oddities about them individually, while remaining blissfully unaware of the implications, allowing the reader to build an omniscient knowledge of what’s to come. The ‘surprise’ ending is not all that much of a surprise, but I’m not sure it’s supposed to be and it’s a highly enjoyable ride getting there. The atmosphere, period detail and careful characterisation all add colour to the story, and the plot moves at an excellently brisk pace. A fun, light-hearted read that is perfect for a rainy Sunday afternoon.