(probably contains spoilers, so stop reading if that sort of thing bothers you)
If I’ve learned anything from books this year, it’s that if humanity as we know it is going to come to an end, it’s going to be kids that are the helm of it all. Liz Jensen’s The Uninvited bundles up all of the psychotic adolescence of Lord of the Flies, blends it with the freaky post-human invasion of The Midwich Cuckoos, adds in a bit of 1Q84‘s [review] blurring of temporal and experiential boundaries, and then tops it off with a bit of Theodore Sturgeon’s More than Human. As elevator pitches go, it’s a pretty good advertisement for birth control.
Like Murakami’s massively hyped 1Q84, The Uninvited employs a detached narrator to do its bidding, and rightly so. Murakami gave us Tengo Kawama, a quiet man-child of a character whose insight is lacking on an emotional level: his skills are in mathematics and in the analytical breaking down of events. It’s something that’s almost needed, however, in order to give balance to the chaos of time-slips, cults, freaky little people building cocoons out of goats and so on, and it’s perhaps why Jensen gives us a similar narrator in The Uninvited‘s Hesketh Lock. Lock has Asperger’s Syndrome: he’s high functioning intellectually, but has difficulty identifying emotional and communicative cues. Instead of the little people and their cocoons, however, Lock is dealing with freaky children with a penchant for salt, the building of tall structures out of household items, and a yen for murder.
Curiously, I found Lock not at all different from Murakami’s typical protagonist, with his wide-reaching ethnographic awareness, unusual job, and lonely and emotionally withheld existence. All that’s missing is the ubiquitous Murikamian cucumber sandwich, really. The similarities are there to such a degree that when I read of Lock’s habit of folding mental origami in order to soothe his frayed nerves, I couldn’t help but wonder whether this was a nod to Murakami’s work.
Murakami’s detached, unattached narrators provide a thematic and narrative counterpoint to the strange realities of his books, and Jensen’s Lock does the same in the creeping strangeness of The Uninvited. When we begin to see the true story of what’s behind all of these sudden workplace deaths and parenticides, it’s such a huge thing–a thing that has consequences for the evolution/existence of humanity as a whole–that it almost needs such a narrator to be able to offer a viewpoint that’s uncomplicated by a frenzy of emotions.
It’s in Lock’s positioning as an almost post-human, or perhaps at least a slight upgrade on the rest of us, that we begin to see resonances of The Midwich Cuckoos [review], John Wyndham’s haunting novel about an alien(?) invasion that results in the mass birth of a group of children who share a collective intelligence and who represent, possibly, an evolved form of humanity. Lock becomes placed in the middle of it all, and necessarily really, being somewhere between neurotypical humans and the evolved, experentially-connected kids who begin committing in sorts of ghastly acts in the name of some greater good whose identity we don’t learn until much later on. This, too, is perhaps true of the professor character Zellaby in The Midwich Cuckoos: he’s the only one who stands any chance of overthrowing what becomes a sort of weird military child invasion. Unfortunately for Lock, things aren’t going to be as easy in The Uninvited, perhaps because his (pseudo)adopted son Freddy is caught up in all the madness, where Zellaby’s daughter miscarried her “cuckoo” child, severing any similar possible connection.
Many of the same issues that occur in The Midwich Cuckoos crop up in The Uninvited as well. For example, the legal status of “evolved” individuals, especially given that they’re minors and have curtailed participative rights anyway. How do you treat a group of people who are, in the case of The Uninvited, effectively terrorists, and in The Midwich Cuckoos, effectively insurrectionists, when they’re possibly not even people at all? In both instances, the wider society looks for proof of “outsiderness”, in order to justify treatment that would otherwise violate human rights. (NB: if you have a third kidney or like to salt your food, run away right now.) How can we apply our legal system to a group of non-humans? asks The Midwich Cuckoos. The Uninvited, on the other hand, is dealing with a much riskier group of individuals–they’re aggressively violent, not violent only in retaliation, as the cuckoos are. But in both cases, the groups are small, reliant on our resources and infrastructure, and they’re desperate to protect themselves from us–whom they see as barbaric, but yet a formidable enemy.
Interestingly, where The Midwich Cuckoos largely keeps its focus to a small town in England, Jensen’s invasion is a global one, and she emphasises this nature through the culturally influenced perceptions of her characters about what’s going on. One person’s ghost is another person’s djinn. Perhaps this is the mark of a novel written in the present day as opposed to one written during the cold war era, but what made Wyndham’s book so utterly terrifying was that it’s the end of the world on a tiny, village-size scale. It’s so personal and so possible, and it’s about people like the rest of us.
The Uninvited, on the other hand, looks at our world on a grander scale, with a grander, more participative protagonist who is yet removed from the reader by the very way in which he processes the world. It’s still creepy, but it’s at its creepiest when it’s zoomed in to Hesketh’s relationship with Freddy than it is exploring the situation panoramically: thousands of freaky, but largely anonymous kids running around killing largely anonymous people. It’s probably an effective parallel between that time and ours: our own ways of disconnectedness and insularity, which occur not because we don’t know what’s going on around us, but because there’s so much of it that we have to filter it all out. But at the same time, it doesn’t quite resonate in the same way.
For me, the sheer scope of The Uninvited was what caused it to fall short for me. It feels meandering and confused for the first third–or even two thirds–however, when the pieces begin to come together at the end, the reveal is so large and grandiose that it almost needs to be the beginning of the story, not the end of it. And yet, how do you even go about writing such a thing? Is the end of the world really the end of the world? Or is the mere awareness that the world as we know it is about to end enough to stand in for the physical end itself? It’s a formidable concept, but one that I didn’t feel was done justice here.
Rating: (not bad)
With thanks to Bloomsbury Australia for the review copy
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