Yet another book set (mostly) during the 1950s; I'll have to shake things up with my next read. The Outcast, by Sadie Jones (Harper, 2008), was excellent: gripping, painful, and heartbreakingly sad. It opens in a small village outside London in 1957, where Lewis Aldridge is returning home to his father's and stepmother's home after a 2-year stint in prison. He doesn't know quite how to behave with his neighbors or even his family, nor do they with him ... but for now, that's all we learn.
Almost immediately, we rewind 10 years to another homecoming: that of Lewis' father, Gilbert, who has just been demobilized after World War II. Both Lewis and his mother, Elizabeth, have grown accustomed to more closeness and less formality than life with Gilbert seems to demands, and continue to quietly enjoy some of their own rituals, like picnics by the river, while Gilbert's away at work.
Their otherwise-ordinary suburban routine, however, is shattered after one riverside picnic, when Elizabeth drowns. Both father and son withdraw into their own private grief, seemingly unaware of or unable to comfort one another. Within a few months, Gilbert finds comfort elsewhere, remarrying the young, naive, and malleable Alice. Lewis, however, has fewer reserves to draw upon, and in his silence, becomes a local curiosity of sorts. His nearest neighbors, the Carmichael girls, continue to seek him out; Tamsin, slightly older, from a combination of pity and craving admiration; Kit, 5 years younger, because she's learned from her own family's dark secrets that people aren't always what they seem, and she has faith that beneath Lewis' numb exterior lies someone kind and good.
Sadly for Lewis, others don't share Kit's conviction, and treat him only with a distant tolerance. This, coupled with his tense relationships with Gilbert and Alice at home, lead him to cut his arms in order to feel something, and ultimately to commit the crime for which he is imprisoned. After his release, he tries desparately to fit in at last, but is thwarted by a complicated relationship with his stepmother, and by the lingering resentment and suspicion of Dicky Carmichael, Gilbert's boss and Tamsin and Kit's father. Ultimately, his efforts to find love and human connectedness expose long-buried skeletons in both the Carmichael and Albright closets.
The story is gripping, and all the characters (with the possible exception of Dicky) are admirably human; Lewis in particular seems an unlikely hero, and he's really not one ... but the book works. Read it.
- Ithaca, New York
- MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.