The Uninvited

By LIZ JENSEN

The novels of the British writer Liz Jensen have been compared to those of J. G. Ballard, and reading The Uninvited you can see why. Like Ballard, that master of dislocation, Jensen places the reader in an everyday reality turned alien, on a home planet that no longer feels like home. There is also the cold beauty of her style. “The attack took place in a family living-room in a leafy Harrogate cul-de-sac, the kind where no one drops litter and you can still hear birdsong,” Jensen’s latest novel begins. “Three shots. Three half-inch bolts of steel. The jugular didn’t stand a chance. No reason, no warning.”  

The monstrous crimes scattered throughout The Uninvited are all the more horrifying for being the work of innocents. “[T]he date I recall most vividly is Sunday 16th September,” the narrator, Hesketh Lock, recalls, “when a young child in butterfly pyjamas slaughtered her grandmother with a nail-gun to the neck,” This is the Harrogate murder. Others quickly follow. The tally of a single day includes eight in the United States, five in Korea, two in Russia, one in Latvia, and one in Morocco — all committed by children under ten. As the epidemic of child violence spreads, panicked governments corral children for scientific observation. At the same time, incidents of industrial sabotage — in Taiwan, Sweden, Dubai — by employees who then commit suicide become part of the mystifying pattern.
 
“None of us got it right,” Hesketh later observes. “The message was written in letters too big to read…that could only be deciphered from a vast distance or an unusual angle.” Aspereger’s syndrome ensures that Hesketh already views reality slantwise. An anthropologist who analyzes behavior patterns for a P.R. firm and, in his spare time, collects foreign-language dictionaries and paint samples and studies origami, he is the ideal investigator and the ideal narrator. Viewed through his clear eyes, spasms of terrifying violence or heartbreaking collapse are immediate and stark; moments of tenderness, perplexing and fragile. In a restless psychological thriller that veers between horror and science fiction, Hesketh’s oddly formal voice is soothing, almost hypnotic. It calms a fevered narrative that acquires fresh urgency when his adored stepson, Freddy, starts to behave oddly and then violently. “He grins,” Hesketh observes as he says goodnight to the murderous boy. “Three gaps. Upper right incisor, upper lateral incisor and lower cuspid. Human teeth develop in the womb at embryo stage…. What else has been biding its time?” Nothing less, it turns out, than the comeuppance that modern man has earned for his crimes against the planet.  

Few things can ruin a thriller like a dose of metaphysics, but Jensen keeps her philosophical explications elegantly brief. And even when she is spelling things out (with admirable restraint), she sustains the sense of menace and dread that darkens even the plainest scene:  an anonymous hotel room, a suburban thoroughfare. “It’s a dull day, with thick wads of stratus cloud on the horizon, layered like insulation material,” Hesketh notices on the outskirts of London. “Many cars are parked at skewed angles, as if abandoned in a hurry.” As chaos spreads and colleagues die, he retreats finally to his Scottish island home, and a landscape suspended “….between light and dark: shafts of sunlight, charcoal clouds, sudden rainbows, the pale featherings of fog on scrub, the pewter glint of the Atlantic.” To survival, if not salvation.