Books that involve politics while keeping sight of the personal issues are a favorite of mine, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I really enjoyed Anne Korkeakivi’s An Unexpected Guest. Here is a book that very elegantly mixes politics and history with a complicated personal story.
Quick story summary: Clare Moorhouse is the American wife of a high-ranking British diplomat. They live in Paris; their two teenage sons are at different boarding schools in Britain. Clare has a big secret in her past, a secret that has formed her exterior personality for the last twenty-five years and a secret that could ruin her husband’s career were it to get out now. The book is concerned with a single day—a neat time limitation that makes for a close and intense reading experience—and a day in which, obviously, the threat of her past looms larger than it ever has before.
The political intrigue of An Unexpected Guest deals primarily with The Troubles between Northern Ireland and England, and especially with the American perspective on that issue during the 1980s. However, while these events work mostly in the novel’s past, Korkeakivi manages to make some provocative parallels to contemporary political struggles – namely the American invasion of Iraq and the current War on Terror. The book involves a very interesting subplot that deals specifically with these contemporary issues, but also, subtly comments on how the War on Terror has fueled a dangerous kind of racism.
The scenes of An Unexpected Guest that work to grease the wheels of this political story are what make it somewhat of a thriller. Korkeakivi creates a very palpable sense of impending danger. It is to her credit that the book doesn’t stop there, as the exploration of Clare’s personality is a fascinating one. Here is a woman that committed a grave mistake in her youth—a mistake that caused her to lose someone she loved, but also required her to relinquish a part of herself. Giving up aspects of one’s personality may be a normal part of the growing up process, but Clare must enact a permanent about-face. After what happens in her youth, she must choose to be someone very different and she must guard herself very carefully.
Early on in the novel, Clare remarks on this process. Her thoughts come about after a comment made by her husband, which he intends as a compliment but which hurts her very much, when he says that she fits so perfectly into the orderly and composed diplomatic residence.
She was pale, smooth, beige, a sea pebble of the kind one picks up along the beach and slips into one’s pocket to run one’s fingers over while pondering the meaning of life—or where to eat dinner. She knew it, she had even cultivated it—as much as she had ever manufactured anything about herself, for her development had been more like an act of erosion, a sanding away of all extraneous or undesirable elements, and this was how she felt more and more, as though each year were a grand wave washing away a little more of her.
Clare is in an interesting position since what drove her toward the life she has now was a solid quest for safety, for predictability, and more than anything else, civility. She admires her husband for his capacity for rational thinking and for his belief that the world’s problems can and must be resolved through clear-headed negotiations. Knee-jerk emotional reactions will never save the day. And yet she still secretly harbors a passionately emotional individual beneath her unruffled exterior and she cherishes the memory, however painful the memory might be, of a man who functioned in a much different manner. In this way, the book goes beyond its bombs and diplomatic maneuvering and conducts a very careful examination of this woman’s psyche.
An Unexpected Guest is a curious hybrid of a book. It has elements of a thriller, it contains several echoes of Mrs. Dalloway, and it is set in a posh world of diplomacy and expatriate families. Even Korkeakivi’s writing is a blend of straightforward storytelling and the gently lyrical. Yet despite these fascinating variations, more than anything it is an intelligent book. Emotionally intelligent and politically astute.