The Perfect Guests by Emma Rous

Originally published in 2021

1988. Beth Soames is fourteen years old when her aunt takes her to stay at Raven Hall, a rambling manor in the isolated East Anglian fens. The Averells, the family who lives there, are warm and welcoming, and Beth becomes fast friends with their daughter, Nina. At times, Beth even feels like she’s truly part of the family…until they ask her to help them with a harmless game—and nothing is ever the same.

2019. Sadie Langton is an actress struggling to make ends meet when she lands a well-paying gig to pretend to be a guest at a weekend party. She is sent a suitcase of clothing, a dossier outlining the role she is to play, and instructions. It’s strange, but she needs the money, and when she sees the stunning manor she’ll be staying at, she figures she’s got nothing to lose. 

The events of The Perfect Guests center around a mysterious, isolated old mansion. Rous splits their story into three narrative strands told from different perspectives and set at different times. These alternate throughout the novel, before being connected at the end of the novel, making it clear how they relate to each other.

The first strand of the story takes place in 1988 when Beth Soames, an orphan, is brought to Raven Hall by her aunt to stay with the Averell family. The family have some peculiar restrictions, forbidding the Beth and their daughter Nina from leaving the estate to venture into the village, but she quickly grows to feel part of the family. She is desperate to stay and so when the Averells come to her and ask for her help in pulling off a small, apparently benign deception on a visitor she agrees. She soon comes to wonder though if there is something more sinister going on.

While this was not the aspect of the story that intrigued me most from the description (more on that in a second), I found this to be the most interesting and successful part of the novel. A large part of that is that the setup reminded me a little of one of my favorite Sherlock Holmes short stories, The Adventure of the Copper Beeches when it is first introduced. Smartly Rous doesn’t try to stretch out the question of what the Averells are up to but instead focuses on the mystery of why.

I also thought that the characters in this section of the story felt much more detailed than those in the other strands of the story. There are obvious reasons for that as there needs to be some ambiguity about some of the connections between the different narratives, but here at least I feel we get to know these characters well and enjoyed figuring out their secrets.

The second strand takes place over thirty years later when Sadie Langton, an unemployed actress, receives a job offer to take part in a murder mystery weekend at a newly renovated Raven Hall. She is excited at the prospect of staying in a historic home and hopes that it may lead to a more long-term gig so she throws herself into the event. Then the cars disappear, the phone lines are dead and a guest vanishes, causing the party to be on their guard.

I really enjoy murder game stories and I was excited by the prospect of it being blended with the isolated mansion trope. In the end though this didn’t quite match what I expected from it as the events here are more odd than thrilling.

I think the reason for my disappointment was based on the structure of the book. The decision to interweave the stories suggested implies an equal status between them in terms of building interest and the mystery but once you get past the chapters setting up the situation, it doesn’t seem to have the same weight as the first strand.

While the interweaving of these narratives does add some interest, it all goes in one direction. Things we learn in 2019 tease things we will learn in 1988 but it is clear that the most important revelations will all take place there. The 2019 narrative and Sadie only really feel important after the connections between the two timelines become clear and even when things were brought together my interest was primarily in what had happened to Beth, Nina and the Averells.

As I referenced before, part of the problem here is characterization. While I understand the reasons that some vagueness is needed to make the connections between these narratives unclear, with the exception of Sadie I felt that the party was far too loosely defined to feel that I knew anyone well enough to be shocked when I realized who they were.

Finally there is another strand of the story that follows a woman who used to live at Raven Hall. The identity of that character and the year it takes place is not identified until close to the end of the novel, so the reader will be on the lookout for clues as to their identity and how these events fit alongside the others shown. I think that aspect of the story works quite well and while I was pretty sure whose story it was (and I was right), I thought it was quite effectively done with enough ambiguity in the details given for it to seem to fit with several of the characters.

The mystery at the heart of the story about what the Averells were up to and why is certainly intriguing. I felt that the most successful revelations were all tied to the immediate consequences of those choices and while there are some significant twists and reveals given towards the end of the novel, these become increasingly sensational – particularly an unnecessary and rather corny extra reveal in those final few pages.

Still, I liked the exploration of Beth’s character and her increasingly awkward relationship with the Averell family. While some of the choices she makes are obviously dangerous, I felt that she was an interesting figure and I cared about what happened to her.

If I didn’t entirely buy every aspect of the explanation, it is because I feel that Nina’s father’s motives and actions remain a little vague and confusing. I think that the story could have really used some explanation directly from Marcus to make his thought processes a little clearer and more relatable given that he appears less often than Nina’s mother. Still, I appreciated some of the things we learn about the family and felt that the 1988 strand of the story built to a strong conclusion.

I think Rous writes in a compelling and engaging style which makes this a pretty easy and entertaining read. The problem for me was rooted in the book’s structure – there is far too much time spent in 2019 and I found the events of that time much less compelling than those in the past. Still, bits of The Perfect Guests work well – especially the two historical strands of the story – and I will be interested to see more from the author in the future.

The Verdict: An interesting if uneven mystery. The events of 1988 are intriguing though and I enjoyed learning what happened in that story strand.

Second Opinions

Fictionophile reviewed this and enjoyed Rous’ writing style though they preferred the author’s first work, The Au Pair.

2 thoughts on “The Perfect Guests by Emma Rous

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