In The Uninvited Guests, Sadie Jones provides a lyrical feast for her readers. Set in Edwardian England, Jones tells the story of a birthday party in a country home, a party that is interrupted by group of refugees from a railway accident. Not only is the party derailed, but the lives of the family and party guests take a number of unexpected turns as they must tend to the displaced passengers. Jones’s novel feels like a hybrid of lyric poetry, the Gothic novel, and the novel of manners.
The first thing that strikes me about this novel is the absolute beauty of Jones’s writing. It truly feels like reading poetry. In fact there were certainly moments when I lost sight of the progression of the narrative, so caught up was I in the beauty of the words. This is especially the case in the passages describing domestic preparations and the party itself:
Florence and Myrtle had toiled long and hard with fantastic and imaginative results. As well as the emerald-green roses and glossy chocolate cake, on a high crystal stand, there were bowls of cream; before that gherkins, as well as various gratins and slabs of pork, formed or minced, with mace, capers, thyme. The rind of bacon soldered leaner components together. There were lemons, sharpening the edges of fat, and chervil. . .China bowls and glass vases held small collections of flowers from the garden: hyacinths, lily of the valley and narcissi. The smell of them, miraculous, with wax furniture polish and blue wood-smoke, went all through the rooms and the in the air of the halls and stairs, too.
The description here is lovely, apt, but the sounds of the words themselves, even divorced from any meaning, sing like a sonnet. Passages like these really deserve to be read aloud so that the reader-listener may savor the sounds just as the characters savor the foods and flowers here described.
Jones’s plot is imaginative and fitting all that the same time. Although she pursues a number of unexpected angles, Jones’s reader is left with the sense that the final outcome is the only outcome that could possibly work. That is, the fantastical elements end up feeling not as far-fetched as one might anticipate but somehow perfectly plotted.
As much as anything else, The Uninvited Guests reads like a compelling period piece, and I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a sucker for a well-executed period piece. Jones gives a clear picture of of a very specific kind of social engagement, defined by very specific foods and social interactions, unique to a particular social class in a particular time period. Fantastical elements aside, we are given a snapshot into one very small by fascinating element of the lives of our characters and into the lives of their counterparts in Edwardian England. In this regard, Jones credits Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management; I think Mrs Beeton would be proud. Of course, Mrs Beeton’s own biography is complicated by sexual impropriety and sexually transmitted infection in ways that are typical of the life of the middle class woman in England in the first part of the twentieth century. Likewise, Jones’s characters face complications, double standards, and very particular strictures with regard to sexual relationships. Thematically, then, Mrs Beeton allows an opportunity for Jones to explore the complications inherent in the sexual mores of Edwardian England, a period quite different from our own.
I cannot say enough about how simply lovely the writing is in The Uninvited Guests. At moments, Virgina Woolf’s novels come to mind as an interesting stylistic and even thematic comparison. This is my first foray into the writing of Jones, who has published two other novels, but it certainly will not be my last. It is period piece and literary fiction of the highest order.
NOTE: This review is part of the blog tour for The Uninvited Guests. Check out other stops on the tour here. A special thanks to TLC Book Tours!
NOTE: A review copy was provided by the publisher. No other compensation was received.