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I have had this book on my bookshelf for quite a while, and finally got to it this week. I'd read some very positive reviews on it, knew it had been a Richard & Judy book club book and had been both won and been shortlisted for awards, so was looking forward to it and had quite high expectations.
The book begins in 1957 and Lewis Aldridge has just been released from prison (for a crime we are not told of until later in the book) and is making his way back to his home town of Waterford in Surrey. It appears that no-one in the village is pleased to hear of his return, least of all his own father and step mother, apart from 15 year old Kit Carmichael. It's very clear from the opening pages that Lewis is a disturbed young man.
The book then covers two different time frames. That of a younger Lewis and then later a pre-prison Lewis. We find out how the return of his father from WW2 a stranger, the death of his beloved mother and introduction of a very young step mother Alice affect the young Lewis, and how the consequences will affect a whole community.
It's probably inevitable when you have high expectations of a book that you will at times be disappointed by it, and unfortunatly for me this was one of those times.
The book began well enough for me. Lewis is it once deep and brooding and an air of mystery surrounds the reason he was in prison. I was intrigued by his cool reception on his return home to his upper/middle class village and immediately felt the claustrophobic and secretive atmosphere of the era.
Returning to his childhood, It was easy to sympathise with Lewis very early on. When his father returns from war, he doesn't know him and finds him aloof, a man who believes in repressing feelings and keeping up appearances. This is in stark contrast to his Mother, who is carefree and showers him with love, despite having a problem with alcohol. When his mother drowns with Lewis as the only witness, his father does not want to know his grief and sends him straight to boarding school. Only a short few months later Alice is introduced as his new mother.
I felt real compassion for the young Lewis, and wanted to just wrap him up and protect him myself. I felt angry with his Father and wanted to just scream at him to just hug his son. I feel the author did a fantastic job of recreating the attitudes of the era, and it was easy to imagine his Father, keeping a stiff upper lip and Lewis falling apart.
Alcoholism is a major theme within the book. Both his Mother and Step Mother have problems with alcohol, and eventually Lewis. I liked the way that this was tackled. Lewis's family are upper middle class, and socialise with the 'Lord of the Mannor' Dicky Carmichael. The author destroys the image of glamour and elegance of afternoon tea parties and gives them a dark edge because of the secrets the reader is aware of lurking underneath.
The book also tackles self harm and domestic violence. I personally found the depiction of self harm quite difficult to read, perhaps because I have first hand experience. I found it to be very graphic, and while I could understand why Lewis did it, felt the author used self harming for shock factor and didn't delve into the emotions behind it. It left me feeling very uncomfertable.
The story is told in the third person and we also get the perspective of Lewis's family and neighbours. I found most of the characters extremely dislikeable, but very well drawn and believable. I enjoyed Kit Carmichael, who has always idolised Lewis from being a young girl and was a kindred spirit in that she is also an outcast from her own family. I really could relate to and sympathise with this character.
By the second part of the book I was finding it difficult at times. The writing is very stilted in parts and became droning in tone, meaning I found myself skimming a lot of the book. It's also very dreary and depressing. I'm not the type of reader who likes fluffy happy ever after, and am quite able to read about difficult subjects, however I just found this book had no light or hope whatsoever. I was intrigued by the story enough to carry on, and had connected with the main character, Lewis, enough to care what was going to happen to him. However it was a book I could easily put down and was in no hurry to return to.
I did find this book disappointing. It isn't that I found it a terrible read, while I don't think enjoy is the right word I was certainly intrigued and drawn in through a good three quarters. However at times I found it utterly depressing and occassionally uncomfertable. The writing style became plodding and stilted in places and I found it easy to dip in and out, barely reading large chunks of text but not feeling I missed anything in particular.
I enjoyed the depiction of middle class life in suburban England in the fifties. I felt the author recreated the oppression and stifling attitudes very well. I also enjoyed Lewis and particularly Kit, and found all of the characters easy to imagine and believable.
Perhaps I wasn't in the right frame of mind, or perhaps I found the graphic descriptions of self harm too close to home to enjoy the book as others have. I did feel some relief at finishing it and being able to move onto something else, as it did leave me feeling heavy hearted while reading it.
Sadie Jones was a screen writer for BBC television and this is her first novel. I actually think this would be a great TV drama, I can imagine it on TV and can even imagine possible actors for the parts. Personally I think I would enjoy that more than the book.
Overall, I'd say this book was ok. I won't read it again, some images will remain with me but I'm afraid the vast majority won't. I would recommend giving it a go if your interested in reading it, but perhaps not as light reading or if your feeling particularly depressed.
The Outcast by Sadie Jones My edition was published by Vintage Books in 2007 ISBN 078-0-099-51342-1 I bought my copy in a charity shop, RRP is £7.99