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British country house anchors social satire

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When a British country house sits at centre stage, you can usually bet that the work in question -- on stage, screen or paper -- isn't just about real estate.

That is certainly the case in this supernatural social satire by Britain's Sadie Jones (winner of the Costa First Book Award for her 2008 novel The Outcast).

In The Uninvited Guests, the Torrington-Swift family lives in Edwardian splendour in a beautiful, rambling house called Sterne.

But as we learn right away, Sterne is built on a financial foundation of sand and is on the verge of being sold to pay off family debts. And before long we can see that the seemingly timeless way of life represented by the house is about to be swept away by the tides of war and revolution.

Fans of Downton Abbey and Brideshead Revisited will be familiar with the idea of using a nostalgic vision of domestic beauty to represent the struggle between tradition and modernity.

Jones hints early on that her story will be a competition between world views as represented by the two Torrington-Swift children: romantic son Clovis and practical, scientific daughter Emerald. One represents the century that has just ended. The other the century that has just begun.

These clashing values come to the forefront when the central event of the novel -- Emerald's elaborate birthday party -- is crashed by the titular uninvited guests. The guests are a haggard group of lower-class men, women and children said to be survivors of a train crash.

Jones doesn't just conjure up the early years of the 20th century with architectural and decor details (though these do abound). She puts the reader into the mind of the Edwardian age in the very structure of her sentences.

Her authoritative, omniscient narrator speaks with a voice that has been made increasingly rare since the advent of literary modernism -- no unreliable, shifting, or limited perspective here -- offering the reader commentary along the lines of "nobody who's been given tea has truly any cause for serious complaint" and "Coincidence is a frail concept, no more satisfying an explanation of this world's workings than the weightier Fate."

Jones has chosen to write the book using a deliberately archaic style. She makes frequent use of nowadays-forbidden adverbs to describe actions and statements, as in "Clovis curled his lip, loathingly" and "she remarked conversationally."

If you wrote a novel with a contemporary setting like that you'd be laughed out of Creative Writing 101, but in Jones's book those touches help to transport the reader to the early 1900s.

There's a reason for this exercise in time travel, and it's not just to let the reader bask in nostalgia. Jones creates the spirit of the Edwardian era in order to show how in a few short years it will be vanquished forever.

As the weekend birthday party gets out of hand, Jones provides plenty of foreshadowing of the coming First World War (not the least being the title -- a term often used to refer to death).

Thunder booms like artillery. Crowds of ragged people appear. Eventually the house is filled with filth, mud and revolting smells, described in terms that call to mind the trenches of the Western Front.

Fittingly, the disruption of sedate and elegant life at Sterne is marked by the appearance of technology. An invited, but not entirely welcome, guest arrives in his Rolls Royce. The newly installed telephone intrudes on the calm of the weekend. And it's a train wreck that causes the uninvited guests to arrive.

Jones, whose two previous novels focused on social change in 1950s British society, has given us a fascinating re-creation of that moment when the bloody, fast-paced 20th century crashed like an express train into the garden party of the Pax Britannica.


Bob Armstrong's novel, Dadolescence, is nominated in two categories at tonight's Manitoba Book Awards.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 28, 2012 J7

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Book review

The Uninvited Guests

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  • Knopf, 272 pages, $22
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