The Uninvited by Liz Jensen (Bloomsbury Publishing)
... 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 from a business trip to Taiwan, where he investigated a whistle-blower who exposed corruption in the Taiwan timber industry.
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.
Hesketh has Asperger’s Syndrome, so he’s not good with people, but he has skills that make him an excellent investigator: a superb memory, an incredible talent for spotting patterns, a PhD in the anthropology of belief systems, and an interest in foreign languages.
After the Taiwan case, Hesketh finds himself globetrotting to investigate other cases of corporate sabotage, all with similar features. The perpetrators 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. Soon, Hesketh, also notices links between the sabotage cases, and the growing number of child murderers across the world.
This sounded like a good horror story, but it turned out to be so much more that it put my expectations to shame. The horror is there, 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 it so much – the vivid writing, the creepy child killers, the final reveal – but the main reason is that Hesketh narrates it. He’s instantly likeable – odd, observant, poetic. Jensen describes Hesketh’s life in fascinating detail, bringing humour, warmth and pathos to the story. Despite his social and emotional difficulties, Hesketh has adapted to some social norms.
He’s studied human thought and behaviour in order to read people and mimic the appropriate responses. He can’t make eye contact, but he can fake it. He assures us that his reverence for the truth makes him an honest narrator, although his inability to lie can be either refreshing or extremely awkward in daily interactions.
Most people find Hesketh disconcerting regardless of the adjustments he’s made, but he prefers to be alone anyway and lives on a remote island in Scotland.
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 man’s skin tone as “Dulux’s 2010 Cointreau”. His favourite hobby is origami, which also calms him in stressful moments. Hesketh tends to create the impression that he doesn’t feel emotion, but this is untrue:
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. 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. Disturbingly, it’s only the plague of child murderers that aallows Hesketh to see Freddy again.
It’s important to note that the reader isn’t expected to pity Hesketh because he has Asperger’s. He actually 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 life and every other character seems disappointingly normal in comparison.Things can be difficult because he differs so much from the norm, but Hesketh hasn’t allowed it to be debilitating.
In fact, he’s more successful than most people, with a great job, and a beautiful home where he is able to devote time to his interests. When we feel sorry for Hesketh, it’s for reasons 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 horrific things and struggles to cope with those experiences.
I won’t say much more about the story; rather read it for yourself. It’s an odd but successful combination of horror and optimism with touches of dystopian fiction.
If I have any complaints, it’s only that I thought the characters could sometimes be a little slow in figuring things out, but I generally enjoyed the novel’s pensive nature. 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. Recommended.
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