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Nineteen year old Lewis Aldridge is released from prison - for an offence we aren't fully informed of until much later in the book - and returns to Waterford, his childhood home where his stepmother is nervously expecting him. He receives a frosty welcome not just from his stepmother and his father, Gilbert, but from most of the residents of the village. Only two are remotely pleased to see him, and for very different reasons.
Sisters Tamsin and Kit Carmichael couldn't be more different. Kit lives in the shadow of her lively and attractive older sister; she is the one who takes the beatings from their brutal father while Tamsin is the apple of his eye. Tamsin starts to take an interest in Lewis and in doing so provokes the rage of her father.
To explain why Lewis's return has isolated his family, the reader is taken back to Lewis's childhood when, as an eight year old, he witnessed the death by drowning of his mother during the summer holidays. As soon as term began again, Gilbert sent Lewis back to his boarding school and, separated, each was forced to deal with his grief alone. After only a few months Gilbert introduced Lewis to Alice, a woman many years younger than himself who he intended to marry. This rapid chain of events transformed a happy go lucky little boy into a confused and lonely young man.
Set in the late 1940s through to the late 1950s, 'The Outcast' tackles an age old subject but one that perceived quite differently then from today. Some of the issues - alcoholism and self-harming
- are ones that are talked about quit openly these days but in the 1950s they were taboo (self-harming was not even widely head of at the time).
The social class and upbringing of the families involved further add to the air of secrecy around mental health problems as the 'stiff upper lip' attitude prevails .When Gilbert seeks professional advice he can hardly bear to admit his family has problems and resents even the most general questions the psychiatrist asks him. The major elements of the story revolve around a society and individual relationships that are very different from those we recognise today. When Gilbert returns home from North Africa after the war he barely knows his son and is more interested in his beautiful wife than getting to know Lewis. With Gilbert at work all day, his alcohol dependent wife knows she'll find it more difficult to cope when Lewis goes off to school; with just the two of them together for so long Elizabeth had been able to exercise some degree of control over her drinking but she fears that being entirely alone during the day will rid her of the reasons she had not to drink all day. Gilbert insists on sending Lewis away, however, because it is what is expected of people like them.
It's a similar story in the Carmichael household but here it's domestic violence that is the family secret. In the days when women didn't think twice about a beating from an 'overworked' husband, attitudes were very different from today.
These subjects are not uncommon in contemporary literature but are usually tackled quite differently, mainly because attitudes have (largely) changed. Most people believe it is wrong for a husband to beat his wife and, while many people still fear people with mental health problems, it is easier for people to get the support they need.
As a novel dealing with these issues at a specific time and place 'The Outcast' is a terrific success. In her debut novel Sadie Jones has captured the austerity and the concerns of the 1950s perfectly. It's a society where a husband can pretend to be unaware of his wife's alcoholism so long as she manages to put tasty meals on the table with only a ration book and some creativity at her disposal. Particularly striking were the descriptions of the jazz clubs of Soho where Lewis spends his evenings to escape the tension of sitting in silence with Gilbert and Alice.
Where the novel falls down in its response to the issues it raises. We know that Lewis cuts himself and while he quite eloquently describes how that makes him feel, there is no response to this. Gilbert tells the psychiatrist what his son does but he doesn't ask why, not does the psychiatrist offer any explanation. Of course, it is not necessarily the duty of a novelist to educate or campaign but I did find her approach disappointingly one-sided.
In spite of its bleakness I found this a compelling read though an uneasy one that made me feel a little voyeuristic; at times it read like the literary equivalent of 'road-crash television'. This was in part the result of the narrative style; the story is told as a third person narrative but primarily from the point of view of Lewis though there are plenty of opportunities to see things from the point of view of the other characters. Learning from Kit what is really going on in the Carmichael house makes the scenes where the Carmichael's hold their extravagant parties more difficult to read because we know that under the surface that the odious Mr Carmichael's family is actually more dysfunctional than the one he likes to hold up for ridicule in the village.
The characterisation is a triumph; I particularly liked the contrast between the Aldridges and the Carmichaels. The Aldridges are a family shunned in their community for something ultimately beyond their control, something that would probably earn them sympathy these days. The Carmichaels however hold influence in the village, giving the impression of the perfect family while all along they are hiding a deep, dark secret.
'The Outcast' is not a novel for everyone, at first I wasn't even sure it was one for me. Initially I found the characters annoying and stilted but as I developed a bond with Lewis I found myself drawn into the story and wanting to know how the story would develop.
There are no surprises in 'The Outcast' although that's not to say it was predictable. The pleasure in reading this novel is in the skill of the author at depicting a particular kind of people at a very specific time and Sadie Jones has excelled with 'The Outcast'. I hope there will be more to come.