No generations of Torringtons had lived anywhere particularly, as far as they knew. They were a wandering, needs-must sort of family, who made their living disparately, in clerking, mills or shipping; travelled to France for work in tailoring, or stopped at home in Somerset, Shropshire or Suffolk, to play some minor role in greater prospects; designing a lowly component of a reading cathedral or a girdered bridge. Some had been in business, one or two in service; there was an artist, some soldiers, all dead. All dead.
When Sadie Jones’s novel begins, the Torrington family has been settled at the manor house called Sterne for a generation. Horace Torrington had bought the house “rashly at the peak of what transpired to be transient — too harsh to call it flukish — financial success.” Now, Horace is dead, and his wife Charlotte has remarried. Her new husband, Edward, much reviled by the Torrington children, is going to Manchester to seek a loan to save the house.
Edward leaves on the birthday of the eldest daughter, Emerald, a practical young woman with a secret romantic streak. She and Charlotte, along with Clovis, Emerald’s brother, spend the day preparing for a dinner party to celebrate Emerald’s birthday. The guests will include John Buchanan, an eligible bachelor farmer from the neighborhood, and Emerald’s school friend Patience Sutton and her mother. Meanwhile, the youngest Torrington daughter, the often-forgotten Smudge, is preparing for her own Great Undertaking involving a pony and some charcoal and Smudge’s particular ideas of art.
The carefully made plans for the evening first begin to go awry when Patience Sutton arrives with her medical student brother Ernest, there to take the place of his mother who is sick with flu. They bring with them news of a nearby train derailment. The railway has asked the Torringtons to open their home to some of the survivors, and so they do — resentfully — stuffing the survivors into the morning room and forgetting about them, or most of them. One survivor, Charlie Traversham-Beechers, arrives after the others and wheedles his way into the family party. His presence distresses Charlotte, who has a mysterious history with him, but Clovis is oddly fascinated with him. Charlie exhibits an uncanny ability to manipulate everyone, from the other train survivors to the Torringtons and their guests, and the ability becomes increasingly sinister as the night continues.
This book took me by surprise again and again. In the beginning, it reads like a light family comedy with a hint of romance, but set in the Edwardian era. Jane Austen meets Downton Abbey. The family members’ passive-aggressive selfishness leaves plenty of room for drama, but the narrative tone is arch and gently chiding. The arrival of the train passengers, especially Charlie Traversham-Beechers, brings a sense of unease to the proceedings. The circumstances, and Charlie’s needling, bring all the family’s worst impulses out into the open.
At first, I wasn’t entirely sold on some of the shifts that took place in the novel. The descent into nastiness seemed reasonable, even likely, and the narrative voice remains consistent enough that it all feels like the same book. But a few revelations late in the book were so unexpected that I felt cheated. Surely I should have seen that coming. You can’t suddenly throw that kind of thing in and expect readers to go with unless you’ve prepared them. But the clues were there. I noticed them; I just never imagined they meant what they did. (If you’ve read this, I’d really like to know what you thought.)
This book was published in the UK and Canada earlier this year. The US release is May 1.