The Uninvited by Liz Jensen is a nightmare come alive. The book raises a primal fear that keeps hitting the reader harder and harder not only from the sheer scale of the events as the numbers of the criminals and the victims multiply, but also from the horror that emerges at the thought of such a disaster actually coming to pass. Hesketh Lock is an anthropologist who suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome. Separated from ex-girlfriend Kaitlin, Hesketh still misses her little seven-year-old son, Freddy, who he thinks of as a step-son. Hesketh, a corporate fraud investigator, is sent to Taiwan to investigate a case of whistle-blowing in one of his company’s client-firms. Sunny Chen, an employee in a timber factory, has blown the lid on some high-level corruption involving the illegal trading of hardwoods culled from protected forestland. But Chen, far from seeing himself as a hero, is consumed by guilt. A man who fears and worships his ancestors, Chen insists he was driven to expose the corruption by spirits. The knowledge of his guilt drives him to kill himself, leaving behind witnesses, CCTV footage and a suicide note. Around the same time, in England, a seven-year-old girl shoots her grandmother and father, killing the one and blinding the other. There is no motive for the crimes, and the child herself seems unaware about the enormity and gravity of the deed she has done. Barely has the clamour died down and the investigation set to rest before the world begins to reel under the onslaught of a rash of cases of both kinds. The death of Sunny Chen is followed by numerous acts of sabotage across industries in countries around the world. Each time the saboteurs, grown men with clean records and reputations for harmless behaviour, indulge in acts of sabotage, they feel a crushing sense of remorse and accuse mythical beings from the mythology of their own cultures, before killing themselves out of repentance and shame at the act of disloyalty that they have committed. Meanwhile, children across the world turn on their close family members in horrific and brutal acts of violence. After the crime is committed, the children slip into a state of fugue, losing all memory of the ghastly deeds. Called to investigate these abnormal incidents of corporate sabotage, Hesketh begins to see patterns such as a fear of blindness and food poisoning and an inexplicable and unnatural craving for salt and processed food between the grownup saboteurs and the criminal-children. Hesketh teams up with his old mentor Prof Whybray to try to make sense of the nightmare. Even as they struggle to understand these strange phenomena, the nightmare hits much too close when Freddy attacks Kaitlin. Before long, conditions deteriorate further when the children begin to lose their language and other social skills, and band together in feral groups in a situation that sees a complete disruption of normalcy and brings mankind to the brink of disaster. And yet all is not lost. For those who are willing to see, there is a lesson in it. That Jensen has succeeded in writing a first person male voice is admirable. One of the highlights of this book is the character of Hesketh, easily one of the most likable voices I’ve read in recent times. Besides possessing an inordinate interest in the most random yet esoteric subject (he can identify clouds by name and has a talent for associating real life action with comic book action sounds), he also remembers other random facts and figures that are always relevant. Hesketh also has a penchant for matching skin tones, and the colours of hair and furniture with the shades in a paint catalogue chart that he carries about in his head. In addition, he loves doodling Venn diagrams, in an attempt to find commonalities in seemingly unconnected situations. It is an activity that he finds a greater need for with the increase in the mysterious incidence of suicides and murders. The condition he suffers from is anything but a disadvantage to him, since it renders him incapable of immersing himself in social relationships, enabling him to maintain the neutrality and the distance that his investigations demand of him. Completely out of place in social situations, Hesketh’s way of dealing with another person’s distress is to make them an origami figure, a pastime that affords him great solace. In fact, Hesketh’s origami provides the props for the expression of his sentiments. Even though he lacks social skills, he has a wry sense of humour and tries in vain to prove to himself that he does have a heart and that he is not a robot made of meat, an accusation once made by Kaitlin. Despite his best attempts, however, he remains staunchly unmoved by symbolism. I would certainly wish for a sequel with Hesketh in it. Another highlight of this novel is Jensen's prose. Her writing makes you taste the heat and ash and smoke of the traffic and the metal of the malls. She talks of a “living room” that “smells of damp wool and wood smoke” and “coarse crystals winking on the slate roof of my cottage.” It is a special treat to see foreign locales through her eyes. In one instance, she describes Dubai as being “Pincushioned with construction cranes.”
The novel is rich in detail and knowledge of the language and folklore of numerous cultures, including Chinese and Scandinavian. Aficionados of folklore will rejoice. Hesketh himself loves to learn the basic phrases, culture and traditions and folk tales of a new country each day.
I scare easy and avoid the face peeling variety of horror, but the psychological brand of horror, I’ve realised, is even more intense. The brilliance of this novel lies in the fact that the macabre events are hastened through the medium of children, the epitome of innocence. Horrific as the implications of the novel were, the end was even more disturbing for me.