The Uninvited Guests is one of those books that clearly is speculative fiction but that lands on “literary fiction” shelves instead. I like the fact that this book can be read many ways – as fantasy, as horror, as magical realism, and as historical fiction. It’s weird and dark and atmospheric and perfect for October – plus it’s a delight for fans of Downton Abbey, since it’s set in that era and pays much attention to the niceties of upper class country life. The tone is different, though – this book is very much about the costs of that life and how disproportionally they fall upon some people.
The family in The Uninvited Guests is presented with a conundrum – they want to live an upper class life (the mother, Charlotte, longs for a life of “dignity”) but they have a middle class background and income. Charlotte, a widow who recently remarried, is devastated at the thought of losing her large house in the country, which the family cannot afford. Charlotte’s new husband, Edward, goes to London to try to borrow money to save the house while the rest of the family prepare for the oldest daughter’s twentieth birthday (her name is Emerald).
So, the mood is already one of melancholy and desperation cloaked in madcap festivities when a crowd of drab, voiceless people shuffles up to the house out of the fog, like zombies. Apparently there’s been “a dreadful accident” on the railway and the survivors have been sent to the estate for shelter. They are all third class passengers. Charlotte could not be more horrified if they really were zombies, and the rest of the family is almost as unsympathetic.
The remainder of the book spirals into more and more manic combinations of romance, bitterness, grief, cruelty and redemption, and mystery. Why can’t they reach the railway on the phone? Who is the one survivor who claims to be a first class passenger, and who claims to know Charlotte? Why does the number of passengers seem to be growing larger? And why on Earth is the youngest child trying to get a horse into her room?
Ultimately this book is about a lot of things – clothes and elaborate hairdos, and how incredibly difficult it is to make a fancy dinner for a party of seven, and the high cost of living. It’s also about the sacrifices we make for family and the things we refuse to give up, the casual cruelties we practice and whether those cruelties can be redeemed by kindness. It’s about class, and gender, and selfishness and loss and hope. Much like Emerald’s party, it appears to be a light diversion and turns into a complicated mess – but a well-crafted, revealing mess. This is a book that I suspect benefits by being read again and I’m looking forward to doing so!