Part commentary on Edwardian snobbery, part ghostly, gothic satire, Jones's unusual novel
is steeped with moments in history and a sense of the loss of innocence. A transition from certainty and security to complete abandonment
takes place when a group of uninvited guests arrive at the dilapidated country estate of Sterne on the eve of eldest daughter Emerald Torrington’s twentieth birthday. Hoping to improve the family’s dire financial straits, one-armed Irish lawyer Edward Swift travels to London, searching for a much-needed influx of capital in the hope that he can rescue Sterne from the auctioneer’s block.
This “wondering needs-must sort of family”
has made their living disparately amid much hardship over the past three years. Edward has kindly accepted the opaque and recalcitrant offspring that is Sterne. Emerald and brother Clovis,
along with younger, wayward Smudge, have grown older in the ghost of their father Horace Torrington, who loved Sterne as much as he loved his beautiful, emotionally brittle wife, Charlotte. Even
after all these years, Sterne still holds the mythology of a successful marriage that is fully encapsulated in Horace’s ramshackle legacy.
Emerald’s big night promises to be fraught and calamitous, a celebration begun in confusion and disarray, fueled mostly by Clovis’s petty animosities and Charlotte’s pervasive lack of connection to herself and to the world around her. Because Sterne now operates on a skeleton staff, the preparations for the dinner are left to stern housekeeper Florence Trieves
and officiated over by distant Charlotte, who is forced to degrade herself by laying the dining table with the silver and china.
A local emergency--a train accident--threatens to send the evening into chaos and disorder. Ordered to take care of the third-class passengers while the local
railway comes to some kind of arrangement, Sterne is to be a sort of stopping place and halfway house for the survivors. Naturally the kitchen is in an uproar: Florence and her helper, Myrtle, are "hard at it," both barely visible among the impervious clouds of flour and solid puffs of cream.
As Charlotte is intent to ignore the guests, gentleman traveler Charlie Traversham-Beechers appears from the morning room with his black mustache twitching delightedly, his expression glittering with determination and a sort of naked triumph. Charlie’s arrival is almost seductive, taunting and teasing, his presence almost a joke to test the behavior of the Torringtons and their guests: Patience and Ernest Sutton and forthright young John Buchanan, a single-minded mill-owner who delicately courts Emerald. In the course of the night, this forbidding, selfish cast will be finally stripped of pretense.
Fueled by Charlie’s Machiavellian games, the evening takes on a leaden atmosphere of need.
The house acquires the fug of a railway station waiting room, of sweating coats and slippery, oily-skin, "the wet-dog smell of damp wool" as this collection of “guests” suck the very air from the rooms with their “opaque desires.” Sick with the foul taste of cruelty, rot, mud and decay, Jones finally shows us the truth behind Charlotte’s fragile soul, Clovis’s indefatigable rudeness, and Emerald’s desires as she seeks to acquire the attention of those around her.
A stormy night descends on Sterne, and Jones's sharp satirical literary eye suggests a tone etched in rural gothic. From the bedraggled travelers to a villain’s expulsion, to a woman who transmogrifies from servant to witch, Jones never sacrifices her playful, readable style even when she finally wipes away all of her characters’ smooth, upright veneer of civility.