The Outcast

I came to read this book mostly due to a review on Goodreads, a negative review, that made the book sound atrocious. I liked the review, but as a couple of years went by I couldn't quite get it out of my head, and my curiosity - was it really as bad as all that? - prodded me to buy it when I saw it at my favourite second-hand bookshop. And the short answer is No, I don't think it's as bad as the other reviewer found it to be, and isn't that part of the joy and the complexity of reading? What's t I came to read this book mostly due to a review on Goodreads, a negative review, that made the book sound atrocious. I liked the review, but as a couple of years went by I couldn't quite get it out of my head, and my curiosity - was it really as bad as all that? - prodded me to buy it when I saw it at my favourite second-hand bookshop. And the short answer is No, I don't think it's as bad as the other reviewer found it to be, and isn't that part of the joy and the complexity of reading? What's trash to one person can be something quite different to another, and really, is anyone wrong? Is anyone right? When we think dispassionately about reading, we can acknowledge that a wide variety of opinions are valid. The fun is in articulating your own.In 1957 nineteen year old Lewis Aldridge returns home after two years in jail, finding things to be pretty much exactly as he'd left them: his emotionally-disabled father, Gilbert, is still expecting certain things of his son; and his step-mother, Alice, still flutters uselessly around him, mixing drinks for his father. And Lewis himself hasn't really changed, just more withdrawn and quiet and distrustful than ever before, unable to speak, unable to ask for the love of his father or overcome the tragedy of his mother, Elizabeth.Twelve years ago in 1945 we meet Lewis as a little boy meeting his father for the first time, newly returned from the war. Gilbert doesn't know what to do with this seven year old boy except shake his hand and wish him elsewhere. His long-awaited reunion with Elizabeth seems crowded. Settling at home again in the south of England and with Gilbert working hard at a new job, Elizabeth, bored and purposeless even with a small child and husband just returned, drinks herself steadily into an unspoken depression, until one disastrous day at the river with Lewis ends with her drowned. From that moment, that tragedy that Lewis not only witnessed but failed to prevent or save his mother from, he changes. His father won't hold him or soothe him, only demand answers from him. Becoming more and more withdrawn, now taunted by his peers who were once his friends, Lewis resorts to physical violence in retaliation and builds a reputation in the small town community for being violent, unpredictable and even dangerous.Only Kit, the youngest daughter of the wealthy Carmichaels - Dicky who beats his wife and Kit, who is Gilbert's boss; his alcoholic wife Claire who stands by; and their older, beautiful daughter Tamsin who Dicky dotes on - sees Lewis for who he really is. Having worshipped him as a little girl, Kit is the only one who defends him ... but no one listens to her.After returning from jail, his reputation even more firmly entrenched in the minds of everyone but Kit, Lewis spirals even lower. In a post-war world of repression, depression and alcoholism, of harsh peer judgements and class consciousness, there's no room for one lost little boy seeking his father's love.

I'll tell you know that the ending is quite satisfying and relatively happy; that might help you get through this novel. The other thing I'll mention is that, when I went back and found the original review that made me curious enough to try the book, I couldn't actually disagree with what she said. I liked the novel, but it's not without its flaws and I still see her argument - or list as the case is - as perfectly valid. Yet I didn't have the same problems with it as she did. What I'm left with though is trying to understand, and separate, my own response to the novel.

The Outcast has one of those omniscient narrators that keep a tight control on the narrative, sharing so much detail that you think you know everything and thus at times clouding your own impression with something almost pre-ordained. The narrative is high on telling, low on showing, but the emotional tangle the key characters are in is part of the latter and that's what saved it from being a totally hand-holding experience. The highly functional narrative has a strong plus in its favour here, though: it creates a very tangible 50s world and atmosphere and often made me feel like I was watching a BBC show. (Having seen plenty, I had no problems visualising the story, the characters and the setting, right down to the dresses and the wallpaper.) Here's a taste:

The rain stopped as everybody came out of the church and got into their cars or walked away through the village and Elizabeth pulled Gilbert to the car faster and faster, like running away, and made him laugh. At home they ate lunch without talking very much and not tasting anything particularly at all and the afternoon, for Lewis at least, was strangely flat and just difficult. He couldn't seem to do any of the things he normally did, and the sight of his father was still unfamiliar to him and disturbing. He was used to a feminine presence and he found his father's maleness oddly threatening. He was exciting, and to be adored, but he was foreign too, and he changed the balance of the house. Gilbert's uniform had not been burned, but hung in the wardrobe in the spare room, where he dressed, and Lewis should have liked him to

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keep wearing it and be distant and heroic instead of real and influencing Lewis's daily life the way he did. In his suits and tweed jackets he looked like a father and more approachable, but it was deceiving, because he was a stranger, and it would have been easier if he hadn't looked like someone you might know very well and yet not be. (pp.26-7)

There's definitely a liquid flow to Jones' writing that makes the book an effortless read; her words simply carry you along, insightful and fresh and yet allowing little to no wriggle room for the thinking reader. On the one hand, I had no trouble letting her tell the story to me the way she has, going along with it, like watching a movie and simply feeling but certainly not doing any great thinking. On the other hand, yes, it's a shame to be told (not literally) that you're not needed in the storytelling process, that you just need to be still and listen.

The one thing that you can't help but notice, amongst the narrative, is how truly dysfunctional everyone really is, how repressed and reliant on drink to blot things out - not necessarily the war either, as most of the drunks in the story never even fought or were involved at all. It's more that their once stable society and social rules are rotting from the inside-out, that things are changing and they haven't caught on or don't want to, that what was once important is slipping away and a new world order is emerging. The 50s sounds like a truly depressing time, reading The Outcast - and the 40s weren't much better. The children born in this time are our Baby Boomers, and their world is quite different from their parents'.

And for all the hand-holding Jones' does - as prettily as she does it - I couldn't but be deeply emotionally affected by Lewis and his relationship with his father. What his mother did was horrible, but believable. His father was also horrible, and just as believable, and it doesn't matter that he was a typical father of his time. You get caught up in the story and in Lewis' pained silence and you want to smack his dad and scream at him to just comfort the boy for god's sake! If nothing else, this is a story of bad parenting - not just Gilbert, but Dicky too. Yet both are products of their time, their upbringing, their social standing and their own failings. Pompous, repulsive Dicky, leering at his pretty daughter and beating his younger one, blustering and puffed up with his own sense of self-importance. It's not like there aren't still plenty of Dicky's in the world. Or Gilbert's.

One of the things that I felt worked with this novel was how the "tell" narrative was so telling. Like the characters, it focused on petty details and surface looks. The characters were unable to communicate with each other, or understand each other. The focus on surface details and dialogue in the narrative was reflective of that, and added to that tightly repressed atmosphere in the novel.

Lewis reached them and Gilbert got out of the car. Alice wished she had gone into the house and didn't have to watch. Gilbert bore down on Lewis, who was trying to pass him. She couldn't hear what they were saying and didn't need to. Gilbert was shouting at Lewis, who was backing off; he made a grab for Lewis and grasped his arm, and they struggled, with Gilbert trying to force up Lewis's sleeve to look for himself. They were out of sight of the village and there was no-one to see, but Alice hid her face in shame at all of them anyway and didn't see Lewis, pulling away from his father, cast one quick look at her.Gilbert, gripping Lewis's hand, yanked his sleeve up. Lewis's arm was bared and they were both still.

Gilbert had no way of demonstrating his feelings at seeing his son's scars, or about the day, or about the things Lewis had done in all the years he could remember since Elizabeth's death. For just a moment, like a brightly lit photograph, he remembered the son he thought he would have. Then he let go of Lewis's marked up arm and looked into his face and Lewis saw himself reflected. Gilbert told him to cover himself and walked away. The worst had happened between them, it seemed. (p.177)

If Lewis is a sympathetic character - and he is - then so is Gilbert. Both mourn Elizabeth, and neither can speak of their feelings, certainly not to each other. They are clearly headed down the same path to dismantling their family, and blame each other. It's not like watching a car crash, it's like being in a car you know is going to crash and being unable to do a thing about it. Lewis is the one you want better things for, the one you feel most deserving of love and a second chance. He was relatable and understandable and definitely loveable, but it was painful having to stand by and watch it all unfold and not be able to help him.

This is a novel of profound human sorrow in a very mundane setting; of the pain caused by upholding certain social values over that of basic human needs; of love, loss and the things that lead ordinary people to drink. I didn't mind the narrative style because, really, Jones' writing made it bearable, helped you get through it and even added beauty to this stark town life. It's an intriguing balance but one that worked well. I still prefer Atonement (they're not exactly similar but it came to mind), but The Outcast was a perversely enjoyable read (and quick), and made me care for the characters and hope for better things for their future.

I'm glad I let my curiosity prompt me to read this book; it's one that will stay with me for all it's good and bad points. A morbidly fascinating debut novel from Jones. ...more

Category: Review

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