Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury; 320 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
The older I get and the more books I read, the more difficult it appears to be to find truly original novels, because I find so much fiction is just a rehash of stories I’ve read before. But from the opening page of Liz Jensen’s latest novel, The Uninvited, I knew I was about to embark on a reading adventure that would have no parallel. Indeed, it is quite unlike anything I’ve ever read before.
A genre-busting novel
The Uninvited is not an easy book to classify, because it’s a heady mix of all kinds of genres, including dystopian science fiction, crime, horror and psychological thriller. Throw in a main character who has Asperger’s syndrome, plus plenty of deadpan humour, and you begin to see why it defies categorisation.
But the one element that really stands out — for me, anyway — is just the spine-tingling creepiness of it all. I’m not sure how Jensen does it, because her writing style is neat and restrained, but the subject matter of this book got under my skin and quietly horrified me, perhaps because it felt so believable. On more than one occasion it reminded me of the very best of John Wyndham’s novels, notably the The Midwich Cuckoos (which has only made me want to go back and reread all his wonderful work), and Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child.
If you are familiar with the latter two references, you might have already guessed that this a novel about children who do terrible deeds. From the book’s shocking prologue — a seven-year-old girl kills her grandmother by putting a nail gun to her neck and firing three times — to the concluding chapters, Jensen catalogues a series of violent incidents, including murder, committed by youngsters around the world.
At the same time, the narrative chronicles a string of incidents involving corporate sabotage in which the adult offender claims to have become possessed by something which made them carry out these usually deadly crimes. But are all these disparate events linked and, if so, why are they happening?
An anthropologist turned detective
Step in anthropologist Hesketh Lock, the narrator of the story, who is employed by an international firm that investigates corporate fraud. Hesketh, who has Asperger’s syndrome, has an uncanny ability to spot human behaviour patterns and, because he in incapable of lying, is always focused on getting to the truth of a matter, which makes him the perfect investigator. (He also has a penchant for languages, the brand names of colours in paint catalogues, origami, Venn diagrams, folk tales and belief systems.)
Over time Hesketh has learnt to mimic human emotions — “But apparently I still lack some of the ‘normal social graces'” — and has developed a close and touching relationship with seven-year-old Freddy, whom he regards as his step-son, despite the fact that he is no longer involved with Freddy’s mother. It is only when Freddy’s behavior becomes more violent and “odd” that Hesketh begins to understand how the pieces of the jigsaw might be falling together. What he discovers is not only deeply disturbing, it threatens the existence of the entire human race…
There’s no doubt that The Uninvited gets my vote for the most original paperback published this year — so far. It’s thought-provoking, unsettling and creepy. It’s a genuine page-turner, too, the kind of novel that is unforgettable in all kinds of ways. And if it’s any indication of Jensen’s usual standard, I’m delighted to discover she has a hefty back catalogue for me to explore.