Lewis Aldridge is only seven in 1945 when his father Gilbert returns to the Home Counties commuter village of Waterford to burst the bubble of the boy’s idyllic relationship with his spirited mother. As a father, Gilbert seems unusually cold, distant, even for his well-bred, boarding school upbringing. « You were used to too much love… She spoiled you, » is his verdict on – to modern eyes – Elizabeth’s rather wonderful parenting.
A dark but beautifully written, heart-wringing suspense tale with Oedipal overtones unfolds. Elizabeth drowns when swimming after a drunken picnic in the woods. Lewis, the sole witness, angers his father with an inarticulate explanation. Gilbert shuts out all grief and quickly remarries. A pretty, submissive girl-bride, Alice proves too timid and inexperienced to save traumatised Lewis from his father’s overbearing ways. The boy sinks into mutinous brooding. He self-harms, drinks, runs away to London clubland and comes home to punishment. Resentment brews on both sides.
Jones paints a chilling picture of a hypocritical surburban post-war society. Waterford’s inward-looking, middle-class coterie is obsessed with polite appearances and anxious to return to routine; it’s as though the war never happened. There’s church on Sunday, lunch parties at the Carmichaels’ Tudor mansion, the usual roster of families in attendance; life follows a round of celebrations, picnics, children’s games, « manners, rules you could understand ». The London train debouches besuited fathers at 6.20pm on the dot as the wives mix martinis at home. Beneath the surface, dark secrets swirl.
The story moves between different viewpoints, particularly those of the Carmichaels. Gilbert’s boss, Dicky Carmichael runs everything, it seems. He calls the shots socially. Only his chilly wife Clare, his popular, pretty daughter Tamsin and her awkward little sister Kit know about his violent ways and they keep silent. Alice, infertile, worn down by Gilbert’s hectoring, turns to drink like her predecessor.
Lewis grows more unhappy, more solitary, and when he’s 17, violence explodes. After a period away, Lewis sees he no longer belongs. Dicky might condescendingly give him a menial job, but the Waterford people have locked him out of their hearts; he’s an outcast. Only Kit loves him, but Lewis hardly notices sensitive little Kit.
The claustrophobic, menacing atmosphere of Sadie Jones’s page-turning debut never lets up, and that’s admirable enough, but it’s more than narrative tension that makes the novel special. Her writing is deeply affecting because she uses her characters’ smallest gestures, words and thoughts to build immediacy. Alice will quickly « check her face » and the reader instantly visualises her looking in a mirror, feeling the anxiety that makes her do it. Appearance is a major theme in the novel; Jones vividly describes people’s looks and clothes, but only when she’s making the description work for its place in the narrative. There’s a long paragraph when Lewis observes Tamsin lusciously dressed up, but through it we share his growing appreciation and desire. Kit, on the other hand, is conscious that her own dress doesn’t fit; this expresses her feelings about herself.
Another theme concerns how this class at this period seem not to like their offspring. It’s chilling how many adult remarks to children here are not about feelings but instructions about dress and appearance. « You’ll spoil your frock. » « Where are your gloves? »
The Outcast is not flawless. The action of the second half, after Lewis’s return, is at times repetitive, and there’s a tendency towards melodramatic set pieces, but the quality of the writing and a desire to see justice done keep one reading avidly.
Lewis believes he’s become a dark and broken person. It’s only when he realises that everyone around him is like that too that he’s able finally to save himself.