Liz Jensen is an extraordinary writer.
I can count eight, wonderfully diverse, novels now. She has taken in so many subjects – from ecology to time travel; from fertility to social history – mixing so many different ideas in different, and unexpected, ways. And though her subject matter wouldn’t always draw me I always find her writing intriguing.
The Uninvited is, I think, as good as anything she’s done.
Just look at the cover …
I had to pick it up, and I was pulled in from the very first paragraph.
“Mass hysterical outbreaks rarely have identifiable inceptions, but the date I recall most vividly is Sunday 16th September, when a young child in butterfly pyjamas slaughtered her grand-mother with a nail-gun to the neck. The attack took place in a family living room in a leafy Harrogate cul-de-sac, the kind where no-one drops litter, and where you can hear bird-song…”
The seemingly isolated incident that proved to be the first in a wave seemed to set an obvious course for the story to take. But it didn’t, it went somewhere rather different, leaving those extraordinary events on the back-burner.
Hesketh Lock was an anthropologist, employed by a large corporation to investigate and analyse instances of industrial sabotage. It was a role that suited him very well. Because Hesketh has Asperger’s Syndrome and his emotional detachment, his lack of empathy with the people he studied, meant that he could study the facts and the patterns that fascinated him completely objectively.
I was a little worried when I saw the first reference to Asperger’s Syndrome – it’s been used by rather too many novelists lately, and few handle it well – but here it worked very well. The character worked, as a believable character and as exactly the right protagonist for this particular story.
Another pattern began to emerge: a contact is found dead by his own hand; a subject runs into the path of a moving train; an interviewee leaps from a high building.
Hesketh can’t explain, but he begins to wonder …
“Men attacking institutions they love.
Children turning on their families.
Two overlapping circles, with irrational violence at the intersection.
What else connects them?”
Hesketh observes details – fascinating details, opening up all manner of possibilities – but his work is pushed aside when he is affected by an incident close to home. An incident involving Freddie, the son of his estranged partner, with whom Hesketh had always had a strong bond.
The contrast between the cool, professional Hesketh, and the caring, involved step-father was striking. And the contrasts between a chilling back-story, a fascinating investigation, and a family drama – all held together by some very clever plotting – made reading chilling, thought-provoking, and utterly compelling.
It was fiction, but it felt horribly possible, and completely relevant.
Everything – the writing, the characterisation, the structure – worked.
Most of all it was the characters and their relationships, so very real and so very well drawn, that made a story full of big ideas utterly accessible.
And everywhere the devil was in the details – it would be wrong to mention specifics – so I’ll just say they made me think, they made me feel, and they made me ask questions.
A resolution seemed impossible, and indeed it was. There were some answers but not a complete solution. And a departure rather than an ending.
That was right, but it meant that the ending was less compelling that what had gone before.
Not a bad thing at all because it left room to think about what had happened, what might happen next, and what really could happen.
A fitting ending to a fascinating book.