Title: The Uninvited
Author: Liz Jensen
Published: 5 July 2012; this edition published 8 January 2013
Pubisher: Bloomsbury USA
Genre: science fiction, fantasy, horror, literary fiction
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
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 grandmother with a nail-gun to the neck.
So begins a disturbing global phenomenon where young children violently kill the adults in their families. On the day of the nail-gun incident, Hesketh Lock returns home from a business trip to Taiwan, where he was investigating a whistle-blower who essentially sabotaged his company by exposing corruption in the Taiwan timber industry. He finds the whistle-blower easily enough; the poor man is ashamed, because he never meant to do what he did, claiming that he was possessed by the spirits of the dead, according to Chinese superstition.
Hesketh has Asperger’s Syndrome, so he’s not good with people, but he has a superb memory and an incredible talent for spotting patterns. He also has a degree in the anthropology of belief systems, and an interest in foreign languages (he collects the dictionaries); a combination makes him an excellent investigator. After the Taiwan case, Hesketh finds himself globetrotting to investigate other cases of corporate sabotage, all with similar features. The perpetrators always claim to have acted against their will after being possessed by a child-like spirit or creature. Descriptions of the creature vary according to cultural superstitions, but the pattern is obvious, even if you’re not a savant. Hesketh however, also notices a link between the cases he’s investigating, and the growing number of child murderers across the world.
At first, this seemed like a horror story that was quietly, pensively building to a climax. I was immediately intrigued by the promise of ghosts or demons, not to mention the excellent writing conveying it all. In the end, I didn’t quite get the story I was looking forward to, but the one I got had more depth and was so unexpectedly touching that it put my expectations to shame. The horror is certainly there, in all those terrifying children, but it is just one aspect of a more complex novel that is both elegant and nightmarish. The blurb calls The Uninvited a “powerful and viscerally unsettling portrait of apocalypse in embryo”, and that’s not an exaggeration.
There are several reasons why I enjoyed The Uninvited so much – the vivid writing, the creepy child killers, the final reveal – but the main reason is that Hesketh narrates it. I found him instantly likeable – odd, observant, poetic, hypnotically calm most of the time, but emotionally vulnerable in his own way.
Jensen describes the experience of being Hesketh in fascinating detail, and his character brings humour, warmth and a touch of pathos to the story. Despite his social and emotional difficulties, Hesketh has learned to adapt to some social norms. Using Venn diagrams (an invaluable tool that his mentor taught him to use) he has studied human thought and behaviour in order to read people and mimic the appropriate responses. He can’t make eye contact, but he has learned to fake it. He assures us that his reverence for the truth makes him an honest narrator, but in work and daily life his inability to lie can make conversations either refreshing or extremely awkward. Of course, most people find Hesketh incredibly odd regardless of the adjustments he’s made, but he prefers to be alone anyway. His home is on Arran, an island in Scotland where, as he notes, a human voice seems a strange sound in that empty space.
He also has a variety of quirky, memorable habits. He collects paint catalogues and has memorised the colours so that he is able to, for example, describe a woman’s red coat as “what Dulux, in 1984, called Carnation” or a man’s skin tone as “Dulux’s 2010 Cointreau”. His favourite hobby is origami, which not only pleases him but calms him in times of stress – he keeps sheets of origami paper in his briefcase, and if he is unable to physically fold the paper, he goes through the designs in his head. In keeping with his systematic way of thinking, he doesn’t choose designs at random, but goes through a sequence of 18 favourites.
Hesketh tends to create the impression that he doesn’t feel emotion, but this is untrue, as he states:
Kaitlin used to call me, affectionately, an ‘incurable materialist’. Later, this changed to ‘a robot made of meat’. This is unfair. I’m not a machine. I feel things. I just register them differently.
Kaitlin is his ex-girlfriend, a woman with whom he lived for about two or three years. If Hesketh ever seems incapable of caring for people, their relationship makes it heartrendingly clear that he can:
When I say to someone that I love them, however, I mean it. For someone aged thirty-six I have not said it very often. Three times in two years, to the same woman. And when I stop loving them, I say: ‘Kaitlin, I don’t love you anymore and I can never love you again.’ She confessed to her affair on Saturday 5th May.
When she had finished, she declared that it was my ‘impenetrability’ which made her seek comfort in a lover. That’s when she called me ‘a robot made of meat’. But I am not a robot made of meat. In that moment, though, I wished I was.
The worst part about his break-up with Kaitlin is that she forbids him from seeing her son Freddy, with whom Hesketh formed a deep, loving bond. Freddy became an important part of his life (perhaps more so than Kaitlin) and Hesketh misses him very much. Disturbingly, it’s only the plague of child murderers that offers Hesketh any chance of seeing Freddy again.
It’s important to note that the reader isn’t expected to pity Hesketh because he has Asperger’s. Hesketh himself points out the problem with this approach:
Perhaps she pities me. It’s a frequent mistake. People misunderstand who I am, and assume I want to be like them. I don’t.
Hesketh simply lives a different kind of life. If you were to pity him because of his condition, you would also have to pity all the other characters because they don’t have it and lack his skills in memory and pattern recognition while being bogged down by emotional concerns. If anything, every other character seems disappointingly normal compared to Hesketh. Things can be difficult because his way of life is not the norm and many people find his demeanour disconcerting, but Hesketh certainly hasn’t allowed it to be debilitating. In fact, he’s more successful than most people, with a good job tailored to his personal preferences, and a beautiful home where he is able to devote time to his interests.
When we do feel sorry for Hesketh, it’s because of things that could apply to any other character – his girlfriend cheated on him; he loves and misses her son but isn’t allowed to see him; he witnesses painful and horrific things and struggles to cope with those experiences.
I’d prefer not to say much more about the details of the story; it’s better to experience it unfolding for yourself. It’s an odd but successful combination of horror and optimism with touches of dystopian fiction, and I think of the whole as literary spec fic. If I have any complaints, it’s only that I thought the characters could sometimes be a little slow in figuring things out, but for the most part I really enjoyed the novel’s pensive feel. Hesketh might not be someone I could spend time with socially, but on the page he’s captivating; undoubtedly one of the most memorable characters I’ve come across in a while. The Uninvited was the last book I read in 2012, and I was pleased to be able to end the reading year on such a classy note.