The Uninvited Guests: A Novelby Sadie Jones
One late spring evening in 1912, in the kitchens at Sterne, preparations begin for an elegant supper party in honor of Emerald Torrington's twentieth birthday. But only a few miles away, a dreadful accident propels a crowd of mysterious and not altogether savory survivors to seek shelter at the ramshackle manor—and the household is thrown into confusion and
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One late spring evening in 1912, in the kitchens at Sterne, preparations begin for an elegant supper party in honor of Emerald Torrington's twentieth birthday. But only a few miles away, a dreadful accident propels a crowd of mysterious and not altogether savory survivors to seek shelter at the ramshackle manor—and the household is thrown into confusion and mischief.
The cook toils over mock turtle soup and a chocolate cake covered with green sugar roses, which the hungry band of visitors is not invited to taste. But nothing, it seems, will go according to plan. As the passengers wearily search for rest, the house undergoes a strange transformation. One of their number (who is most definitely not a gentleman) makes it his business to join the birthday revels.
Evening turns to stormy night, and a most unpleasant parlor game threatens to blow respectability to smithereens: Smudge Torrington, the wayward youngest daughter of the house, decides that this is the perfect moment for her Great Undertaking.
The Uninvited Guests is the bewitching new novel from the critically acclaimed Sadie Jones. The prizewinning author triumphs in this frightening yet delicious drama of dark surprises—where social codes are uprooted and desire daringly trumps propriety—and all is alight with Edwardian wit and opulence.
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The Uninvited Guests
By Sadie Jones
HarperCollins PublishersCopyright © 2013 Sadie Jones
All rights reserved.
EDWARD SWIFT DEPARTS
Since her marriage to Edward Swift, three years after the sudden death of her first husband Horace Torrington, Charlotte had changed her position at the breakfast table in order to accommodate her new husband's needs: specifically, aiding him in the spreading of toast and cutting of meat, owing to his having suffered the loss of his left arm at the age of twenty-three in an unfortunate encounter with the narrow wheels of a speeding gig, out of which he had fallen on the driveway of his then home in County Wicklow. Having always faced the window and wide view, now Charlotte sat on Edward's left, and faced him. Her eldest children, Emerald and Clovis, aged nineteen and twenty respectively, but for whom the word 'children' is not inaccurate at the point at which we discover them, did not like this new arrangement. Nor did they like or approve of Edward Swift; single arm notwithstanding, they found he did not fit.
Clovis Torrington balanced the pearl-handled butter knife on his middle finger and narrowed his eyes at his mother. His eyes were dramatic, and he very often narrowed them at people to great effect.
'We can't leave Sterne,' he stated.
'It would be a great shame,' acknowledged his stepfather.
Clovis curled his lip, loathingly.
'Clovis ...' his mother growled.
Edward wiped his mouth with a napkin thoroughly and stood up.
'It's all right, Charlotte,' he said, kissing her forehead as he rose. 'I'll know more when I return, Clovis. And neither you nor your sisters – nor your mother – need worry about it until then, but enjoy Emerald's birthday and try not to fret.
I'm sorry I can't be here for your guests.'
Charlotte stood, too, and linked her arm through his.
'You're both very naughty,' she said over her shoulder as they left the room.
Emerald had not spoken, but sat throughout breakfast rigid with self-restraint. Now she glanced at Clovis, tears blurring both the scowling sight of him and the vast tapestry that hung behind his head. It was a hunting scene of stags and hounds, a faded, many-layered narrative she knew by heart in all its leaping chases across the flowered forest floor. 'Fret!' said her brother with contempt at the word, stablemates as it was with sulk and pet.
Emerald shook her head. In his present mood he was the very personification of all three. 'Oh, Clovis,' she said. From the hall, Edward's voice carried easily to them: 'Clovis! Ferryman needs to be taken out. If you've time today I'd be very much obliged to you.'
His good-tempered authority would have been impressive – lovable – had the very fact of the man not been intolerable to them. Clovis was mutinous. 'He ought to take his damned horse out himself.'
Emerald pushed her plate away.
'He can't very well if he's in Manchester trying to save the house, can he?' she said, and she got up and left the room by the other door so as not to encounter her mother or stepfather again.
He did not go after her. Clovis wasn't somebody who went after people, rather people tended to go after him.
Unable to escape her misery, Emerald wandered up and down in the kitchen for a few moments, aggravating Florence Trieves and Myrtle, and then went out into the garden by the side door.
It was the last day of April. She felt the extraordinary softness of the season on her face and braced herself for a strict talking-to; if it must be audible, she ought at least to get some distance from the house.
The air was complicated with the smells of sharp new things emerging from damp soil. Small tatters of clouds dotted the watery sky. To her left was the door to the kitchen garden and stables. Ahead of her, reaching far and further, in the broadest geometrical sweep, was the country over which Sterne presided. It spread out beneath and beyond, reaching into straining, dazzling blue distance, where the fields became indistinct and hills dissolved to nothing.
The house stood on a piece of land so cleanly semicircular, so strictly rounded, that it might have been a cake-stand left behind in the landscape by some refined society of giants. It was covered with deep, soft turf as one might lay a thick rug over a table, and all the busy pattern of fields, hedges, cows and villages scattered beyond, toy miniatures a child's imagination would produce.
From the front of the house, the edge of the gardens formed a ha-ha between order and free nature. It was bordered by a knee-high sharp-trimmed box hedge, lest dogs should rush at it and fall off. Small children had been known to topple, although happily the slope, on falling, was much gentler than it first appeared. Clovis and Emerald, when much younger, had used to take running jumps off the apparent precipice, terrifying visitors unfamiliar with the topography, only to emerge laughing hilariously, covered with dandelion fluff or mud or clinging claws of long couch grass.
Emerald walked along the curve of the low box hedge with her head bowed, like a lonely merry-go-round horse.
'This helpless grief over what amounts to a few rooms and a rather poor roof is irrational,' she began, 'and frankly –' she stopped walking, '– ludicrous.'
She turned her face to the house, the windows of which glowed variously. 'There's no use looking at me like that,' she said to it.
She crossed the gravel, and went towards the other part of the garden, where were the borders and sundial. 'And there's not even the excuse of ancestry!' she said out loud again, and indignant.
And it was true; no generations of Torringtons had lived at Sterne. No generations of Torringtons had lived anywhere particularly, as far as they knew. They were a wandering, needs-must sort of family, who made their livings disparately, in clerking, mills or shipping; traveled to France for work in tailoring, or stopped at home in Somerset, Shropshire or Suffolk, to play some minor role in greater projects: designing a lowly component of a reaching cathedral or a girder-ed bridge. Some had been in business, one or two in service; there was an artist, some soldiers, all dead. All dead.
Her father's life had been distinguished only by his having the daring to buy Sterne. The house and land had been purchased rashly at the peak of what transpired to be transient – too harsh to call it flukish – financial success when, first married to Charlotte and bathed in her adoration, he had thought Torrington might be the name of the sort of man whose family would live in such a house. Horace had loved Sterne as he loved Charlotte and later, his children: loyally, generously and gratefully. The children, too, feeling that they were at the end of a line, as children always do (for indeed, they are), loved Sterne as exhausted travelers with lifetimes of migration behind them might love their first and last home. Sterne was the mythology of their parents' marriage, their father's legacy, and it had given them the very best of childhoods. Beyond that, it was beautiful, and the effect of it on their souls was inestimable; once found, they were all of them loath to give it up. Unfortunately, Horace Torrington left business for agriculture, about which he was utterly ignorant, at precisely the worst moment he could have chosen. At his untimely death he was very deeply in debt. Emerald often thought it odd that such dire financial straits should be cheerfully nicknamed 'in the red'; black was a far likelier colour. Her father's increasing debt was a dark hole into which they all might yet fall.
In reality, Sterne was two houses. One was a strange, shallow red-brick manor house of two floors and great charm, built around 1760, where the family now lived; the other – predecessor and companion – was attached behind, as the long side of the L, a great barn-like building of stone, where once one of the first lords of that manor would have laid his fires and roasted his meat, but which now stood almost empty in graceless neglect.
In the busy scullery of the New House there was a brief rise of shallow steps to a door of thick wood, mostly kept barred and bolted, which gave onto the cavern of the Old House. The two were joined utterly in the wide raftered and beamed spaces of their roofs, like Siamese twins. If one were in the attic (as the children often had been, galloping about in the dust or lying reading in the dancing window-light), only close inspection could discover the join, for the ribs of the roofs and the planks of the floors were of similar scale, and in the roof spaces the air was always dim and faded. There had been over the years much talk of demolishing the older building, but it had so very many convenient and entertaining uses, especially for storage and on rainy days, and they had not been able to do it.
A magnolia tree grew in the courtyard at the crook of the L. As a child, Emerald used to try to touch the thick flowers by leaning out of a landing casement. She would reach as far as she could, until the tight stitches of her dress strained under the arms and her fingers shook. Clovis when young, not yet having acquired a romantic view of himself, had leaned from the same window to spit. His idea was to perfect his aim and range to reach the insides of the flowers. He had to propel his saliva with vigorous conviction in order to span the gap between the tree and the house and by the time he was eight years old he had succeeded, and was triumphant. Emerald, despite her nature, aspired to practicality and surrendered her campaign to touch the petals by the age of twelve, settling instead for drawing the tree, later painting it and, still later, snipping small parts from it for closer observation under her microscope, but still never felt she had truly touched it. Perhaps a prosaic ambition – accurate spitting, for instance – is one more easily realized. Emerald had reached the driveway, a long avenue bordered by giant black yews. The yews had been meant for a hedge and cultivated as one for perhaps two hundred years but had run sluggishly away with themselves and, neglected, they formed a misshapen lumbering procession. They were wrinkles of dense growth. They were resinous twisted towers with pockets like witches' huts hidden within their vastness for playing or hiding. There were gaps between them that ought not to have been there.
Emerald, who was by day a determinedly practical young woman, often dreamed of recklessly galloping down the dark avenue to the house with the noise of hooves in her ears. Sometimes the dream sent her flying high around Sterne like a bird, with the roofs spinning away beneath her; the chimneys, stables, gardens and country filling her eyes. Then plunged back to earth by waking, she inhabited her bed alone, and wept for her lost infinity.
Now, earthbound, dispirited, she turned from the creeping yews, not caring to gaze into their dreary depths, and having reached the part of the garden laid out to flowers, she knelt by the turned soil of the border and began to cry. She had no smart words now, only childish ones. If only the Step would find some way to save us, she thought, bitterly aware that the resented step-parent was now her devoutly wished-for rescuer.
The crying, far from doing its job and clearing up, was threatening to consume her. At any moment she might fling herself face down on the flower-bed. It was her birthday; she must be happy, and soon. She sniffed, blotted her face, hard, against her forearm and stared stonily ahead. 'Good,' she said. After a moment of listless gazing at the ragged bed she began to pluck at the weeds, inching her fingertips down the weak stems to lift them from the soil. Her hands were soon chilled and muddy and she had made a limp pile beside her on the grass, reflecting that a useful task is a great comforter. Charlotte's private farewell to Edward was made in their bedroom, which sat squarely in the middle of the house above the front door. The room had a deep bay window, framed by an ancient and extravagant rose whose candy-striped buds – as well as all the county – could be seen from the bed across which Charlotte now draped herself, affecting languor in the hope it would calm Edward, who was pacing the softly bowed boards in his tightly laced shoes and causing the dressing-table mirror to rattle on its stand.
He was of medium height: a stocky, sandy sort of man with broad shoulders (his left arm had been severed cleanly and high up, in such a way as not to interfere with the set of these, although one was necessarily more developed than the other) and piercing, pale-blue eyes. At last, he stopped and sat by her. He had warmth and vigour; he said, 'Charlotte, I'll do my best for you.'
It was the sort of thing Edward often said and, unlike very many people Charlotte had known, he meant it.
Edward Swift was the youngest son of an Anglo-Irish architect. With no expectation of an inheritance, he had made his way in the world with characteristic rigour. He had read law at Trinity College Dublin and moved to London to practice. The intervening years of his life bear no relevance to this story, but suffice to say, on meeting Charlotte Torrington – a woman possessed of a high and trembling beauty, in mourning for Horace Torrington, recently struck down – he fell in love. Edward fell in love as deeply as Charlotte grieved, and there in the far-down places of sorrow and sex they met.
When they married, the older children, Emerald and Clovis, were shocked not only at the speed of their mother's apparent return to cheerfulness, but also – profoundly – at Edward's colouring, which seemed to them a betrayal in itself. Their father had been tall and very dark, with pale, black-fringed eyes so dazzling they deserve the category Torrington Eyes. Both Emerald and Clovis were dark with these same, arresting, grey-blue eyes. Their mother was fair, but had been absorbed and become a Torrington and was, after all, their mother (also, her eyes were not to be sneezed at), but Edward Swift was, well, blond.
Excerpted from The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones. Copyright © 2013 by Sadie Jones. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are saying about this
“Vividly atmospheric…niftily deceptive…a story of shattered snobbery, transformation of character and in the end a surprising and eerily beautiful portrait of compassion…A sublimely clever book.”
“What a delicious read! Like something written by a wicked Jane Austen,…I was captivated by its madcap nature and then, unprepared for the strange fruit that the story became.”
“Delightful and unexpected…These well-imagined characters serve to raise stakes the reader cares about. They move beyond archetypes, becoming something unexpectedly rich and engaging.”
“What opens as an amusing Edwardian country house tale soon becomes a sinister tragi-comedy of errors…in true Shakespearean fashion. Sadie Jones is a most talented and imaginative storyteller.”
“A delightful, eerie novel…Jones expertly balances the whimsical and the strange, building things to a climax of abandon, terror and restitution…Engrossing, enjoyable.”
“…a delicious romp to read…Jones’ novel is as tightly constructed as one of those elaborate corsets that the Crawley women squeeze into to sashay around the drawing rooms at Downton.”
“A brilliant novel…At once a shimmering comedy of manners and disturbing commentary on class…so well-written, so intricately plotted, that every page delivers some new astonishment.”
“…THE UNINVITED GUESTS…defied my expectations. I saw none of it coming. I read it in one breathless sitting, and finished wanting to give it to everyone I know.”
“Entertaining…Jones is a writer of admirable narrative energy…with a painfully accurate, almost Stoppardian ear for dialogue and a delightful streak of cruelty that flirts with…the gothic.”
Meet the Author
Sadie Jones is the author of the novels The Outcast, winner of the Costa First Novel Award in the United Kingdom and a finalist for the Orange Prize for Fiction and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction; and Small Wars, a tale of love, war, and honor, which was published to critical praise on both sides of the Atlantic. The Uninvited Guests is her third novel. Sadie Jones lives in London.
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