Fiction Review: “The Uninvited” by Liz Jensen

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“The Uninvited” begins with a six-year old child in pajamas murdering her grandmother. Liz Jensen has a way of grabbing the reader by the throat with uncomfortable juxtapositions of children and violence. Although her latest book has the elements of mystery, thriller and even sci-fi, like her other work, it defies easy categorization.

Carefully plotted, “The Uninvited” thoughtfully imagines the repercussions of a world where children turn on their elders. The main character is Hesketh Lock, an anthropologist who solves corporate mysteries for a PR firm. As a “behavioural pattern expert,” Hesketh is investigating a series of sabotages followed by suicide. He suspects a connection between the children’s murders and the acts of sabotage well before anyone else. Hesketh approaches most of his work with emotional detachment; his ex-girlfriend called him a “robot made of meat”—a phrase that he periodically revisits and rebuffs. Hesketh has Asperger’s syndrome and has various obsessions that help him create order: origami, which he builds, sometimes just in his head to calm himself; languages, which allow him to easily travel around the world; Venn diagrams. Reading from Hesketh’s unique perspective is a fascinating adventure.

There’s humor too. When he has trouble placing a woman in an airport, it’s finally her bracelet that provides a clue. “The Swiss demographer. Wednesday. The Perfect Storm conference. Climate, Hunger and Population. You’d like a King Charles spaniel. We had sex.” Hesketh’s cold response to visceral actions give him the air of a hard-boiled detective, but he actually is emotionally involved  in the events, particularly when a boy that’s something like a son to him is affected. As it becomes clear that the violence is a global pandemic, the question of why it’s occurring becomes more and more prevalent. Jensen hints at bees and climate change. While it might be easier to say the whole thing was a metaphor for a violent world and narcissistic children, such a simple reading is incorrect. Hesketh, of course, has considered that too. “The fact that a unified theory of physics had come within our grasp for the first time in human history was something I came to reflect on much later, in relation to Child One’s attack and the others that followed. But perception is personal. In the early days, some saw the atrocity as a symptom of a spoiled generation’s ‘pathological’ craving for attention in a world in which the future of mankind, through its own mismanagement, appeared blasted.”

One of the most striking aspects of Jensen’s work is how unsentimental she is about childhood. She doesn’t trivialize their pain, or the pain they can cause. In “The Ninth Life of Louis Drax” (2006), which centers around a child in a coma, the child exists in a kind of parallel universe—a dream state where he unravels what happened to him. The children in “The Uninvited” live in another world too; eventually they disconnect from their families and normal rules no longer apply. They live like animals, eating bugs and worms, communicating through grunts and gestures, relying on ancient hierarchies and social structures. And the families distance themselves from the children—after an attack, they understandably disassociate from the person they once knew, preferring the explanation of something like possession to the alternative. The nearer this book glides toward an “apocalypse novel” and yet still doesn’t quite fit the definition, the more you’ll be wondering just how it’s going to end. Despite the slightly absurd premise, this almost-horror is a compelling story told through the eyes of a refreshingly honest narrator. (Kelly Roark)

“The Uninvited”
By Liz Jensen
Bloomsbury, 320 pages, $25

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