Sadie Jones is at a stable when she takes my call; I can hear the tweeting of birds and the clopping of horse’s hooves as she oversees her children’s riding lesson.
It’s a fitting sonic background to our chat, as we’re talking about Jones’ new book The Uninvited Guests, which is set in Sterne, a country manor house surrounded by landscape which “spread out beneath and beyond, reaching into straining, dazzling blue distance” and approached by an avenue of centuries-old “giant black yews”.
Superficially an Edwardian social comedy, the cast includes beautiful daughter Emerald Torrington, celebrating her 20th birthday, and feckless son Clovis, their neglected little sister Smudge, glamorous, equally feckless mother and resented step-father, who is away to raise funds for the crumbling pile.
After a terrible rail crash, a mysterious collection of survivors are foisted on the household, and things take a darker, spookier turn…
“It came from a dream I had about a house," Jones says. “I dreamt about the same house in [several] dreams… It had a presence that was quite powerful. You wonder who lived there, what it was. The house is so real to me – I’m sure it exists somewhere.”
Her previous novels are the Orange Prize-shortlisted and Costa-winning The Outcast, about a family torn apart by grief after the Second World War, and Small Wars, a drama about a disintegrating marriage set in 1950s Cyprus. Jones, a screenwriter who took 15 years to get her first novel published, admits she is “terrified” about the possible reaction to The Uninvited Guests, which has a lighter, wryer tone than her previous novels, as well as the supernatural twist.
She admits that she didn’t “plan” to change direction: "I didn’t think [about writing a supernatural novel]. When you have an idea that’s out of your control, you deal with it and work with it… [that it was a ] supernatural love comedy was a shock!”
She continues: “I love a ghost story, but [the novel] is more to do with subverting the draawing room comedy. Setting the table and messing it up…. Like making a perfect cake and then putting razorblades in it.”
The sumptuous Edwardian setting was an opportunity to explore “a beautiful but very fragile time. The belle époque. Just the right time before everything got tipped upside down [by the war]". Any intimation that she might be fitting into Downton Abbey mania makes her laugh warily.
“I’m not a Downton fan – I’m grateful for it but I would be resentful if anyone thought I’d started writing because of it. In America they’re really selling [the book] with the Downton angle. It’s fine to say that – I want to sell books!”
The Uninvited Guests revels in the costumes, the etiquette, the staunch yet creaking class system of the pre-war era. Jones, who has listed Victorian cookery superstar Mrs Beeton in the acknowledgments, admits that she “didn’t really research [but] read books from around the time”, including Beeton, Vita Sackville West, E M Forster and John Buchan.
“It was a lovely world to go into – to think: I wonder what she’s wearing, what they’re eating. I’ve never described characters’ clothes before," Jones explains.
She adds: "I really needed it after the second book – which was all about war crimes and suffering and misery and marital rape – I had a a wonderful time writing it. Well it was hard, writing is hard, but this was like a frivolous rebound relationship after an abusive marriage, a rampant affair."
The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones is published by Chatto.
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