After my discovery of British writer Sadie Jones last year, I’ve set out to read more of her, starting with her first novel, The Outcast, winner of the Costa first novel prize in 2007.
On a summer day in 1957, Lewis Aldridge arrives by train in the town where he grew up. Its immediately apparent he’s been in prison, but for what reason is not revealed. The story then flips back to 1945, when Lewis was seven and his father was demobbed from the army. When he’s not at boarding school, Lewis spends his time playing with the neighbourhood children, including Tamsin and Kit, daughters of Dicky Carmichael, a local wealthy business man, and also his father’s employer.
But Lewis’ spirited mother is lonely and stifled in the oppressive atmosphere of an English post-war village, and the bond between mother and son is strong. But tragedy strikes and she dies. But no-one, including Lewis’ new stepmother Alice or his grieving father, has the ability or inclination to assuage Lewis’ grief. Then follows the story of Lewis’ disintegration as a result of his unresolved grief and subsequent bad behaviour.
The isolation Lewis feels and the sense of his crushed spirit that Jones conveys, never lets up. The story is absolutely consistent in portraying this shattered soul, which involves a couple of the usual ways people try to escape their pain, but in a very believable way. As with Fallout, she manages to convey the characters emotion in very few words:
‘He wasn’t lost; he was waiting. He was waiting for it to be easier to carry on.’
It does make me realise that publishers are looking for characters whose central driving emotions are very, very strongly evoked. In this case, it creates great narrative tension because you feel like Lewis is a powderkeg of dynamite, just waiting to blow, and the climax, when it comes is really satisfying.
Jones also does a wonderful job of showing the undercurrent of snobbishness and brutality running beneath the veneer of politeness of these characters’ lives and her period detail is once again sprinkled through the story very subtly, so it never jars.
This is a historical novel that avoids all of the sentimentality that often comes from portraying quaint English villages, and the gong of first novel prize is well-deserved.