For fans of Neil Gaman and Justin Cronin's The Passage, a suspenseful literary novel about two disparate but related epidemics by the "sharp, funky, funny, and prophetic" (Fay Weldon) novelist, Liz Jensen.
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The UninvitedA Novel
By Liz Jensen
BLOOMSBURYCopyright © 2012 Liz Jensen
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE PHENOMENON KNOWN as the fairy ring is caused by fungal spore pods spreading outwards like a water ripple around a biologically dead zone. In European legend, they represent the gateway to the fairy world, a parallel universe with its own laws and time-scales. The rings are evidence of dark forces: demons, shooting stars, lightning strikes.
Jump into one and bad luck will befall you.
From the air, Taipei is like a fairy ring: a city built in a crater encircled by mountains.
It was early morning when my plane touched down, but the day's heat was already rising. I'd spent the flight from Manchester to Taipei listening to audio lessons on headphones to brush up on my Mandarin. When the last one came to an end, I pressed play and started again from the beginning. I once attended an intensive language course in Shanghai, hoping to refine elements of my PhD. Linguistically, I am more of a reader than a speaker, so inevitably it was the ideograms that excited me most. I'd copy pages of Chinese characters and use the dictionary to make translations.
The effort on the plane paid off. My taxi driver understood me when I gave him directions. The air shimmered invigoratingly, reminding me of TV static.
I dislike change of any kind. But paradoxically, something in me – a kind of information-hunger – seeks and requires it. If sharks stop moving, they die. Kaitlin once said my brain was like that. We drove past suburban tower blocks stacked like grubby sugar cubes; flat-screen billboards and rotating hoardings that advertised toothpaste, nappies, kung-fu movies, mobile phones. All this alongside glimpses of an older order: street hawkers selling tofu, lychees, starfruit, sweets, caged chickens and cigarettes beneath tattered frangipanis and jacarandas. Violet bougainvillea frothed over fences, and potted orchids swayed in the breeze. Even with sunglasses on, the intense light drilled into my retinas. Here and there, on street corners or in doorways and temple entrances, thin trails of incense smoke drifted up from offerings to the dead: fruit, sweets, paper money. For the Chinese, September is Ghost Month. The spirits of the dead pour out from Hell, demanding food and appeasement, and wreaking havoc.
I inhaled the foreignness.
Fraud is a business like any other. Anthropologically speaking, it involves the meeting, co-operation and communication of tribes. The space between sharp practice and corporate fraud is the delicate territory Phipps & Wexman regularly treads. As Ashok tells clients in his presentations: 'After a catastrophic PR shock, our job is to ensure nothing like that ever happens again anywhere on your global team, because it won't need to. Phipps & Wexman has the best investigative brains in the business. And we have the success stories to prove it. Sanwell, the Go Corporation, Quattro, GTTL, Klein and Mason: all companies whose reputations have been definitively recast by our profile makeovers.' I have heard this speech eighteen and a quarter times. I even feature in it. ('Hesketh Lock, our cross-culture specialist, who has analysed sabotage patterns from Indonesia to Iceland.') Ashok has that easy American way with audiences. 'Nobody at Phipps & Wexman claims to be saving the world,' he continues, 'but we're sure as hell pouring oil on its troubled waters.' It always stimulates the clients, this notion that we're healers. Shamans, even. It was the brainchild of Stephanie Mulligan, a behavioural psychologist with whom I have an excruciating history.
They clap and clap.
Hardwood trees are slow to grow, and prices have skyrocketed in recent years. There were logging restrictions, even before the weak anti-deforestation protocols. But where there's a will, there's a loophole. And a panoply of crooks. The fraudulent trading of hardwoods culled from protected forestland is a global business lucrative enough to have spawned countless millionaires. Jenwai Timber's bosses and their suppliers and shippers among them.
The week before my visit to Taiwan, an anonymous source had sent the Taipei branch of the police's Fraud Investigation Office a set of documentation relating to the purchase of hardwood for Jenwai's timber factory from a Malaysian supplier. These impressively produced forgeries had served to whitewash a raft of illegal transactions concerning wood sourced in Laos and marked, for good measure, with apparently legitimate stamps. The paperchase that followed the first police raid triggered further investigations, and within a matter of days, the entire Laos–Taiwan element of an extensive international logging scandal was exposed. Detectives, environmental campaigners and the media were already busy writing up their reports. But my own assessment would be of a very different nature.
As investigators affiliated to a multi-national legal firm, we'd been hired by Ganjong Inc., the parent organisation under which Jenwai Timber traded. At Jenwai Timber, the main players consisted of corrupt NGO staff, Laotian traffickers, Thai middlemen and Chinese factory managers. And one employee with a conscience. My mission was to find him.
In most organisations, whistle-blowing is seen as a form of sabotage. But it's impolitic to say this publicly. Phipps & Wexman's brochures delicately classify the phenomenon as 'a sub-story in a wider David and Goliath narrative of workplace unrest'. Officially, I was in Taiwan to identify the whistle-blower, pronounce him a hero and award him a generous financial package or 'golden thank you' for alerting Ganjong Inc., via the police, to the corruption it had – unwittingly, it stressed – presided over. In reality, I was there to do a situation autopsy, as a part of a wider damage-limitation exercise.
* * *
The Taipei branch of the national Fraud Investigation Office, a modest low-rise to the south of the city, had the feel of a huge walk-in fridge. Here, over the course of several hours, kept awake by coffee, I heard several theories about the whistle-blower's identity from the police and a sharp-featured young journalist who had covered the case for his newspaper. Although they were curious about his identity, their main concern was the crime itself, and the domino effect of its exposure. They seemed puzzled that Ganjong should have called in a Western personnel specialist.
'It's known as the Outsider Impartiality Effect,' I tell them. 'My presence here is Ganjong's message that it rewards honesty and condemns corruption. Standard strategy.'
The sharp-featured journalist made a face I interpreted as 'wry' and said, 'Cover your ass, right?' And they all laughed. He went on to speculate that the mystery man was in fact female, and the wife of a Jenwai manager who had been having an affair with a bar-girl. This prompted further theories: a shop-floor grudge, a power tussle between senior managers, a rival company's attempt to bring Jenwai down, infiltration by eco-campaigners. I spent the rest of the day probing deeper, only to find the actual evidence was either thin or non-existent. It's often the case, at the beginning of an investigation, that you spend eight hours in an over-air-conditioned office, learning what seems barely one level up from rumour. It's only later that you might spot a stray detail that's part of a bigger pattern, and things fall into place. Over 80 per cent of the time, that doesn't happen.
* * *
The next morning I was at the timber plant on the outskirts of Taipei by 8.25 for my meeting with Mr Yeh, the only Jenwai manager untouched by the scandal: at the time of the illegal wood-trafficking transactions, he'd been on sick leave with colon cancer. The air was humid, and pulsed with the heavy, electric heat that heralds thunder. Undulating lines of altocumulus castellanus and altocumulus floccus patterned the sky.
The plant itself was a functional warehouse building in a high-fenced compound. In the office section near the front gates, the skeletal Mr Yeh welcomed me with a dry handshake and we exchanged business cards. I accepted his with both hands according to custom. The skin of his scalp, which was the distinctive yellow-grey of Dulux's 1997 River Pearl, looked alarmingly thin and desiccated.
'I am pleased to meet you Mr Lock. You are very tall,' he said. Then he laughed. In Chinese culture, amusement display can mask embarrassment.
'One metre and ninety-eight centimetres,' I told him, preemptively. 'But I've stopped growing, I promise.' This is a joke I have learned to deploy to 'break the ice', but Yeh didn't laugh, as Westerners tend to, so I inclined my head and told him in Chinese that I was honoured to meet him. This worked better: he broke into a cadaverous smile and complimented me on my facility. I told him languages were a hobby of mine, though my Chinese was unfortunately rudimentary.
'Call me Martin.' His English was assured and American-accented.
'If you'll call me Hesketh.'
'Hesketh. Unusual name.'
'Originally Norse. It means horse-racetrack.'
'Horse-racetrack?' He laughed. 'And Lock is a Chinese name. But spelled L-O-K. In Cantonese it means happiness. Joy. Good name. Lucky name. Lucky-Lok.' He paused. 'So if you should bet on horses, you win. Ha ha.' Then his face changed. 'As soon as the current orders are completed the factory will close. It is a terrible situation, Mr Lock. Hesketh. It pains me.' He touched his chest, as if to show me precisely where it hurt. In the cottage, five to the left on Shelf Three, I have a book of da Vinci's anatomical drawings. The valves, aortas and arteries of an ox heart are on page eighteen. 'By the way. I am sorry for the way I look. I know it is shocking.'
'No, I'm interested. I like seeing new things.'
There was quite a long pause which I did not know how to U ll. Then he nodded towards the door and said, 'Well, Hesketh. You didn't come here to talk about death.'
In his office, we settled on either side of a desk littered with wood samples labelled in both Chinese and English. It took half an hour to get through my list of questions. He answered diligently, checking dates and figures on his computer. It all added up, and he appeared clean. As for the four female administrative staff, they had already been eliminated by the police: none of them had access to the relevant files.
'I'd like to see round the factory,' I told him.
'Of course. Our operations manager will be happy to show you.'
He made a call and within minutes, a slight man he introduced as Sun-kiu 'Sunny' Chen appeared in a hard hat. I'd been curious to meet Sunny Chen, not least because one of the fraud officers had referred to him as 'an oddball', a term which always piques my interest. He hadn't gone into details, but just tapped the side of his head in the international gesture denoting madness, and said I'd see for myself. The others had grinned.
Sunny Chen's movements were jerky and puppet-like. I couldn't tell his age. Mid-forties perhaps. He was diminutive, with much darker skin than Martin Yeh (Monsoon River) and a hectic look. The two men conversed briefly: I missed most of what they said, but their body language told me there was respect between them. Sunny Chen and I shook hands. We began in Chinese, but I found myself struggling, so after two and a half sentences we switched.
'You know, my father worked here, until he retired. My grandfather too, and four uncles. Jenwai was a good company. Moral. Trustworthy.' Sunny Chen wiped his brow, which bore a sheen of sweat.
Martin Yeh sighed. 'If I had been here ...' He didn't finish his sentence, but shrugged and began a new one. This was about needing to go home and rest. I responded that this seemed wise, given his health status. After I'd seen the factory, he said, Sunny would take me to lunch on his behalf. The two of them had a swift exchange in Chinese, about the name and location of the restaurant. Then we said goodbye and I followed Sunny Chen outside.
The courtyard faced the factory entrance, which was festooned with warning signs and surveillance cameras. In the shade of its concrete flank, Sunny Chen offered me a cigarette which I declined. He lit one for himself and inhaled deeply. His fingers were stained with nicotine. He jerked his head towards the building. You could hear the machinery inside working at full tilt.
'So what do you make of the whistle-blower?' I asked.
'He deserves to die,' said Sunny Chen. 'In fact, I would like to kill him myself.' Then he laughed. His teeth were an ivory colour – somewhere between Silver Birch and Musk Keg.
'He has brought us shame.' This remark indicated he was more bothered by corporate loss of face than by the company's intrinsic rottenness. Did this make him a traditionalist? I made a mental note.
'Have you any idea who he is?'
His head gave an abrupt twitch. 'The police asked me the same thing. And I said yes. But they didn't listen. Please come in. I will show you inside.'
In an antechamber near the entrance, we put on fibre face masks and overalls. Mine were far too small. Sunny Chen gave me a hard hat like his own with built-in ear mufflers. I like wearing headgear. The skull feels pleasingly cushioned.
'We will have to shout in there,' he said, waving me in.
In the vegetable world there's no real time of death. In the right conditions, flowers can last a week, irradiated strawberries a month, apples or onions a year. Technically, a tree is killed when it is chopped down. But its aroma – of bark, of sap, of dense, massed fibre – lingers for decades afterwards. It is a smell that attracts me in the same way as certain colours, shades of violet and green in particular. Inside the factory, the trunks that were being processed were freshly felled, so it was overwhelming: thick and heady and mixed with machine oil. Parallel rows of conveyor belts fed huge tree trunks into mechanical saws which sliced them as effortlessly as a knife cutting through cheese, then dropped them on to another belt system which bore them to the far end of the warehouse, where they were sorted according to width and mechanically stacked. It was a cleverly constructed system that required minimal manpower. The fifteen workmen I saw ticked off checklists, swept bark and sawdust from the floor, drove forklifts and righted skewed planks on the conveyors. The loading of the trunks and the shifting and transportation of the cut wood, Chen told me, was done outside. Like all manifestations of mechanical efficiency, the process was mesmerising to watch, despite the searing noise. And even that had its merits: it was regular, and it meant something. Everything was powdered in a layer of fine, dark wood dust. Standing there in my comfortable helmet, I felt very content. I was Lucky Lok.
'Pencil cedar,' shouted Sunny Chen in English over the racket, pointing. 'From Indonesia. Over there is Malaysian kauri and teak.'
He indicated another section of the shop floor, where wide planks of a darker wood were being sliced to the narrower width typically used for decking and garden furniture. The off cuts and shavings from the closest sawing machine fell on to a conveyor belt, which transported them to the overhead funnel of the machine in front of us, which stood about four metres high. Sunny mouthed something I couldn't hear, and directed me to the wide service ladder. By the time we reached the top rung I was sweating and high on the atmosphere. Peering over the metal rim that curved downward like a hanging lip, we gazed far down into the dark whirring hole of its innards.
'Long way to fall!' Sunny Chen shouted, pointing down. The pulping mechanism worked like a giant food processor, accepting whatever it was fed and chomping it into a coarse mash of woodchips. 'Turn you into hamburger!' His face mask hid his features. I'm not good at second-guessing people's emotions but his eyes didn't seem to be smiling. The flayed wood was collected in a vast skip below. 'We use this to manufacture chipboard,' he yelled. 'The sawdust is re-used also, so nothing's wasted, all recycled.'
I stared at the jostling blur. Repetitive movements snare me. As a child, I would happily watch the washing machine for an entire cycle.
'So you said you knew who exposed the corruption?' I yelled at him when we had climbed back down to the bottom.
He didn't answer directly. 'I showed the police something important here, but they didn't take it seriously.' His brow was beaded with sweat. He pulled o^ his mask and wiped it with his hand, leaving a smear of wood powder. 'Messy place.' Still no smile. 'Come with me.'
I followed him round the base of the machine to the side nearest the wall, where he pointed to what appeared to be a small, blurred hand-print low down on one side of its steel flank. You had to bend down to see it properly. 'Evidence.'
'Of what?' I asked. But he just shook his head and fiddled with his piece of wood. Perhaps I had misheard him. 'Mr Chen, Mr Chen, Mr Chen! What are you saying?' I shouted.
'It means they come here to wreck things. They hate us! They hate everything we do!' He seemed agitated.
'Who do you mean?' My throat was drying up from the wood dust.
'The ones that made this mark. The ones you are looking for!'
'No! Not campaigners. Just very desperate and naïve people.'
This was making no sense to me. 'What did the police say?' I yelled.
'They say it's nothing. Just a hand-mark. Can't get fingerprints.'
This didn't surprise me: I could picture the detective dismissing it, and see why he called Sunny Chen an 'oddball' and made the international madness gesture. What Sunny showed me was nothing more than a crude smear with a bit of wood dust on it, as if someone had slammed a dirty hand against the machine's steel side.
'They say the CCTV doesn't show who made it.' He pointed to the overhead security camera. This didn't surprise me either. It might have been there for weeks, and those images are typically on a three-day recycling loop. 'But it is important, Mr Lock!'
Excerpted from The Uninvited by Liz Jensen Copyright © 2012 by Liz Jensen. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
What an unexpected ride! Originally published on Bookluvrs Haven. Though I am not one that usually judges books by their covers, I do admit that this one caught my eye on NetGalley. It's very simple, yet there is something so undeniably creepy about a child that has that look. A look of evil intent, one could say, and deadly calculation. There is no denying that this novel in its entirety was also meticulously calculated. I was very excited to begin this read and though I have quite a few that were ahead on my list, I couldn't resist it. I had some conflicting thoughts as I read through the first half of this book. The incidents of the child killings is what fascinated me the most about the blurb of this novel, yet as the incidents happened in real time, they seemed to be an afterthought as our main character carried on with his investigations into corporate incidents. They were almost dismissed as strange anomalies of little significance, with most of the focus on Hesketh's strange behaviour, fascinations and thoughts. And I did begin to get a little frustrated, even though the corporate incidents were in themselves intriguing with dark elements that I knew were going to be meaningful in this novel. Needless to say, I am very glad that I stuck this story out. The child attacks begin to become so frequent that they can no longer be denied, and Hesketh begins to form a theory that every investigation of sabotage that he has been involved in, and these strange killings by children are connected. Once his stepson, Freddy, who he is very attached to, begins to behave strangely, I was pulled in and invested 100%. And it is in this last half of the novel, once it all starts to unravel for our main character, that all the preparation of the first half of the novel becomes crystal clear to me and very much appreciated. Because Hesketh is not your typical 'normal' human being. He has a condition where his behaviour patterns are very different, his reactions to tragedy and violence are not quite the 'norm'. It was at that moment that I was totally appreciative of the, what seemed almost tedious and repetitive, insights into Hesketh, the man. Without it, I would not have fully understood Hesketh's actions once the world began to change. A world where the children that lived in it became strangers and monsters to their loving families, a danger to the world that had been so familiar to the adults inhabiting it. The rules, all of a sudden, change dramatically, and so do the players. ** Arc received from publisher through Netgalley for review **
I loved this book. The writing style was fresh and sophisticated, and the characters sharply sculpted, yet vulnerable and flawed. The story went places that surprised and delighted me. There were times when the plot seemed to jump suddenly from one scene to another, which is the only reason I did not give five stars. But all in all that was no big deal. I will read more from this author.
This is one of those books were you know you only have x amount of pages left, and you know the author can't possibly cram in everything you need to know before the book ends. The book itself, in my opinion, starts off rather good. And, while I could wrap my mind around the idea, it all fell so flat. So much detail in the complex origami the protagnist would routinely create, and not enough on the how. Months later, and I still scratch my head and wonder.
What begins and builds as a haunting, eerie global scare unfortunately ends with a preachy wimper.
The Uninvited wasn't quite what I expected but it kept my attention and never did I want to put it down or quit reading it. I enjoyed the persepective of the narrator, a gentleman afflicted with Asperger's Syndrome. His seemingly detached and analytical way he looked at the bizarre and unreal things happening around him was a nice counter balance. I think this would be a very interesting read for a book club discussion.
Ending was written pretty poorly. Overall a decent read.
This had to be one of the worst books I have ever read, couldn't wait to finish it. I always finish a book a book once I begin it, but this one made me want to break that habit !
Hated everything about this book, particularly the protagomist.
Iteresting good read
Good ideas - just wish we talked about the main character, his problems and origami a little less.
I purchased it because of its positive reviews, but despite the interesting main character I found this book disappointing. The premise was just too "out there" for me and the conclusion was unsatisfying.
THE UNINVITED by Liz Jensen is difficult to put into a niche. It's a distopian and psychological thriller, involving all types of evil that people embrace in their religious and societal beliefs: restless spirits of ancestors, trolls, jinns. Children are going seemingly mad and doing evil things. Adults are sabotaging their own projects. When they realize what they've done, they commit suicide. The suicides are taking place globally and before each occurs, the victim complains of one of the evil things possessing him Enter Hezketh Lock, an anthropologist who is able to see patterns when nobody else can. He's called upon to try to decide exactly what's happening. This is a good read, spooky and suspenseful. Hezketh's findings will surprise you. I had planned to give it four stars, but I had to throw that last one in because of the wonderful character development of Hezketh. Hezketh Lock has Asperger's Syndrome. When concentrating, he does origami ... very difficult forms. When he can't bring out the paper, he does the origami mentally. I adored this character. This is my first Liz Jensen book. It won't be my last.
Which combo should have madeclear in the blurb for those who are ot into certain genres or anything to do with children killing or killers if other reviews were correct