The Uninvited is a near-future dystopian novel that also taps into the category of ‘weird’ fiction some critics have recently noted in the contemporary English novel. Liz Jensen is known for this kind of apocalyptic writing, although interestingly she doesn’t always get described as a writer of speculative fiction, but is regarded as a ‘literary’ author who uses dystopian futuristic tropes – as often happens when the literary establishment decides the writing is too ‘good’ to be classified as popular genre. She has three times been nominated for the Orange Prize and her novel Ark Baby was shortlisted for the Guardian Fiction Award. On several occasions popular opinion has rated her as eligible for the Booker.
In fact, she is a writer who uses several genre modes to tell her stories: horror, paranormal and eco-thriller among them. Some critics seem unable to categorise her, focussing on the cross-genre aspects of her writing, but for me she is clearly placed within SF, which has transgressed genre boundaries for a very long time, and has always included some very fine writing. Her prose style is direct, crisp and evocative, but not consciously writerly and she does occasionally lapse into genre cliches. Her structures pretty closely follow those of the SF thriller or adventure and the novels are fast-paced, with a sharp eye for the effective placement of scenes and events for maximum suspense. Her characters are interesting and believable, if usually at least slightly odd, not to mention psychotic, and they develop meaningful relationships through the narratives.
Her previous novel (her seventh), The Rapture, also shades into Stephen King territory. Its theme is global warming, with an approaching major planetary catastrophe as sensed through a disturbed and apparently psychic adolescent, and it is very scary in its prognostications. Much scarier than self-described ‘horror’ usually is. I can handle a bloke with a live chainsaw jumping into the room with a great deal more ironic aplomb than the thought of all that trapped methane under the seabed where massive drilling is taking place. The Rapture, as its name suggests, is also reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, with fundamentalist Christian groups springing up everywhere and waiting – longing – for the end of days. It’s part SF adventure/thriller, part love story and part seriously cautionary tale; not at all mutually exclusive categories. In the wake of recent earthquakes, nuclear accidents and tsunamis and their effects – the absolutely unbelievable devastation in Japan, for example – perhaps we are more receptive to and can more readily imagine the global disaster The Rapture predicates. If so, Jensen is a writer for our times, and perhaps we do need to be afraid; very, very afraid. I was, after reading The Rapture – not for myself, but for my daughters and my grandchildren. The novel also has one of the most chilling endings I’ve ever read, although it follows a not entirely successful climactic scene.
In The Uninvited Jensen returns to the same general literary space, the potentially catastrophic near future, as we continue to waste Earth’s resources, devastate its natural bounty and ignore the signs of a planet in dire trouble.
In this novel her narrator is an anthropologist, Hesketh Lock, who also has Asperger’s Syndrome. Children all over the world have been attacking their families, killing their parents and grandparents, at the same time as a swathe of suicides occurs among self-confessed industrial saboteurs. Lock is a corporate troubleshooter brought in to examine several of the suicides and he gradually realises that somehow they are connected to the inexplicable outbreak of violence among the children. His own estranged stepson, Freddy, is caught up in the frenzy and through him Hesketh both gains insight into what is going on and finds his own personal stakes urgently raised. Hesketh’s perspective, erudite, self-conscious and naïve all at the same time, adds irony and humour to what is basically a horrific story. It’s a great narrative voice, dispassionate, analytical and unknowingly funny, and Lock can’t lie or be less than objective.
The Uninvited postulates a collective unconscious, tuned in to the rhythms of the planet, the workings of time and the earth’s revenge and embodied in the demons who drive the children, fighting against the ravages we have wrought on our world. It plays with past and present and future and the nature of the human mind:
‘Humans like to believe they’re rational … But the capacity for superstition is part of our DNA. All the things we fear … are as present as they ever were. But they’re no longer external. They’ve been chased inside.’
Jensen borrows from Scandinavian, Celtic and eastern mythology, as well as Gaia theory, to produce a novel that is at once a thriller, a horror story and a piece of speculative fiction. At times it veers almost into the realms of magic realism, and without Lock’s specific and impersonal narration, as well as his careful explanations of fairly complicated technical matters, it could be dismissed as whimsical, doom-saying fantasy. But, as with The Rapture, there is something horribly convincing about the possible future explored here. I didn’t think it was as successful as The Rapture, partly because the disparate elements of folklore, mythology, the uncanny and modern-day technology didn’t fully come together for me, but this beautifully written novel, full of complex ideas credibly explained, adds another fascinating dimension and layer to Jensen’s cross-genre SF oeuvre.
Liz Jensen The Uninvited, Bloomsbury Circus, 2012, PB, 320pp, $29.99
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