Liz Jensen’s The Rapture was one of my favourite reads a couple of years back; now she has returned with what could be seen very much as a companion piece. The Uninvited also sees a scientist investigating unusual human phenomena which turn out to herald apocalypse, and also shares a focus on the personal side of events.
Jensen’s protagonist this time around is Hesketh Lock, an anthropologist investigating corporate scandals. Hesketh’s latest assignment takes a bizarre turn when Sunny Chen, the whistle-blower from a Taiwanese timber company, throws himself into a pulping machine. That’s only the first of several similar incidents worldwide; at the same time, children begin to kill their families violently. Hesketh, a pattern-spotter by both profession and inclination, searches for a connection – even when his experiences lead him down a path that goes against all his rational instincts.
Again as with The Rapture, Jensen’s protagonist comes under pressure in the areas of life where he feels it most acutely. Hesketh’s ability to analyse and find patterns was where he felt most secure, and of course now that’s now being undermined by the apparently irrational crisis. However, he’s also feeling tested in the area of relationships: his Asperger’s Syndrome has made them difficult enough already, such that Hesketh has had to leave his partner Kaitlin. But at least he’s always felt that he knows how to communicate with his stepson Freddy – and this area of stability is now also being challenged.
Jensen handles the characterisation of Hesketh well. His personal quirks (such as a fascination with origami, and an instinctive knowledge of the Dulux colour chart) come across not as gimmicks but as anchor-points in his life (symbolically so when he folds origami models from the pages of a medical report that he’d rather not face). Hesketh is not characterised simply as someone who is great with data but inept with people – Jensen is subtler than that. The protagonist does have his difficulties with relating with people, but for the most part, he gets by. There are a couple of conversations where we realise (and Hesketh doesn’t) that he’s saying the wrong thing; but the effect is jarring – they stand out because they’re so infrequent.
The character who, for me, most brings home the emotional impact of The Uninvited’s catastrophe is not Hesketh, but his boss, Ashok Sharma. In some ways, Sharma is the opposite of Hesketh: he comes across as a smooth operator who knows what to say to everyone. But, when the plight affecting the world’s children knocks on Sharma’s door, he can’t stay that way, and becomes a deeper character. That two such different individuals as Hesketh and Sharma are so strongly affected is a way of showing just how far-reaching The Univited’s crisis is.
In its later sections, The Uninvited focuses more strongly on its disaster-novel aspect, and I don’t think it works quite so well – but I must acknowledge that this could just be because find the actual nature of what’s happening in Jensen’s novel is less interesting to me than exploring the characters’ reactions to it. The Uninvited seems to me to be less about human response to catastrophe than response to the threat of catastrophe, and the great emotional challenge that entails. The challenge for Hesketh Lock is to see how – or even if – he can deal with extreme emotional situations. What Jensen does so well in The Uninvited is to explore a global problem through the microcosm of one person’s life.
Liz Jensen’s website
Arc Quarterly video interview with Jensen
Some other reviews of The Uninvited: Thirteen O’Clock; Curiosity Killed the Bookworm; Pamreader; Justine Jordan for The Guardian.