Teddy Locsin, Jr. discovers that while it’s too early to call Liz Jensen’s new novel perfect, it is definitely the saddest story he’s ever read
FORD Madox Ford opens his novel, The Good Soldier, about the infidelity of a perfect English couple, with the now most famous first line of any novel: “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” (Although David Copperfield’s “I am born” is strong competition.) Critics hailed it as the best French novel written in English. I think Liz Jensen just snatched that dolorous honor with her newest novel, The Uninvited. It is also a near perfect piece of prose. I say “near” because it is possible I may stumble on a better one but I cannot imagine how.
The writing is clean. It achieves a startling clarity, in the course, unraveling the most obscure and impenetrable theme, creating the appropriate indefinable dread. This is the sudden outbreak across the globe of children killing their parents, with kitchen knives, nail guns, or anything else that comes easily to hand for kids, such as the top of a long stairs from which they can push their parents down. Then there are parents claiming to have swallowed the spirits of malignant children who drive them to sabotage industries vital to the world economy and take their own lives afterward in the most gruesome fashion.
A management consultancy firm sends its best troubleshooter, a behavioral scientist gifted with autism to investigate the first case. His condition allows him to observe crowd behavior from the outside and spot the minutest detail in any situation, not missing a single one. Indeed, he has the gift of swiftly sizing up a situation, making instant connections and establishing illuminating associations between disparate events, even the most emotionally charged because it takes some time for him to react emotionally to anything.
But he has one overwhelming emotion that never wanes but only grows when deprived of its object. He has an overwhelming caring love for his former girlfriend’s young son who displays the same symptoms of social withdrawal and isolation. The boy is equally drawn to him, even after he and his girlfriend part, until the day the boy attacks his mother.
I woke up at four in the morning after a short and fitful sleep. I tweeted friends that damn if a horror story had made it impossible for me to sleep. It had taken me two days to get almost to the end of what is really a short novel, which I bought at National Bookstore largely for the stark beauty of the binding, the elegance of the layout, the tastefulness of the font, and the high quality of the paper, which is so rarely used for books today. The English publisher is Bloomsbury.
I relished every sentence and never skipped a line. Not that you could because every sentence counts. There is no fat to trim in the writing. By six in the morning I was coming to the end so I had to put down the book. Later in the day I read the remaining pages even more slowly, lingering over paragraphs, hesitant to get to the obvious end of it all.
It is not a horror story after all; rather is it the saddest I have read. But to get that reaction you would have to make the effort—which is small given the author’s talent—to get in the shoes of the autistic hero who, as I said, can instantly grasp everything yet he is incapable of seeing what it all means. It comes to him only at what is literally the end of the world yet also possibly the start of a better one.
His first reaction was the right one, in a way, that “hungry ghosts,” such as those the Chinese appease in the Ghost Month, are taking possession of children and pushing adults to destroy themselves. These are souls of the dead who have departed an evil world and the souls of those yet to be born into it and dread the prospect. But he keeps that thought in the back of his mind and tries to find a scientific explanation for the bizarre and soon pandemic occurrences.
This book also requires you to have cared for a child not your own but as if it was your own, and who is suddenly snatched from you or, in this case, suddenly withdraws into a world you cannot share with it, ever.
Without those two conditions you remain uninvited to enter this novel, which I shall put in the same bookshelf as other prized volumes, beside a signed edition of Finnegan’s Wake instead of in another library in another place where I keep thrillers and light pieces on demographics, logic, political economy and history because this is so much more than any of that.