You might want to read the book first …
After a few pages I decided I didn’t want to read The Outcast. I would have preferred to shut the book and throw it away and never see it again. But pitted against that was my wish to join a book group that several of my friends belong to, and the desire to be part of the book group won over the desire to stop reading the book. The book got worse, worse than I had thought it would be. Disgusting to read in places, revolting, painful, sensational, and titillating. I kept wondering how the author could write as she had, what she must have experienced in order to be able to write as she had, or whether she had just sucked life experiences out of those around her and used them in her book and seen a film in it.
Lewis is the Outcast, the cast out child in comfortably upper-middle class postwar Britain, where families live in large detached houses with housekeepers, and play tennis on their lawns, and drink sherry in each other’s houses after church on Sundays.
Lewis’s early life was lived in his mother’s arms until his father is demobbed and destroys their coupling and changes the balance of everything. His father not only takes away his mother, but sends him away, dismisses him. Lewis keeps hoping for crumbs of love – he waits at the end of the drive for his father comes home every day, but his father dreads seeing him there and tells him to stop doing it. Meanwhile Lewis’s mother is lonely too, and finds comfort in lunchtime cocktails and the comfort is false comfort because it leads to her death, her accidental drowning, and then Lewis really is all alone. Ten, and all alone with nobody who loves him.
The Outcast is Sadie Jones’s first novel and was shortlisted for the 2008 Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction. Lots of famous people gush about Sadie Jones. She looks a bit like Nigella Lawson in photographs, which helps. Unkindly, some people call her novel “McEwan lite”, but that’s about as bad as it gets and being a pale version of Atonement is not bad for a debut.
It begins beautifully, with sparse prose, perfectly weighted conversations and hints, gentle suggestions, of where the characters are going that leave the reader delighted as the character arrives at the way point a satisfying period after the reader has already passed it having already put all the puzzle pieces together.
There is a lovely passage in the Prologue which describes Lewis staring, but trying not to stare at women when he is released from prison, and the paragraph is littered with Lewis’s stares as he finds himself staring again, and then pulls himself away and stops staring and the rhythm of the words matches the eyes so pleasingly.
Sometimes just a few words conveys years of emotions, such as when his stepmother greets him on his return from prison with “We didn’t come” – because they had never come to visit him and her words could have filled pages. Or when his father is reunited with his mother after the separation of the war: “They kissed, embraces clumsily, and then allowed each other to be very close, quickly.”
But the open texture of the words that leaves room for our imaginings does not last. Lewis’s life becomes like a mushroom cloud, unbelievably horrible and damaging and the reader cannot avoid it. Shocking event follows shocking event with an obscene speed that now leaves the reader behind, and this struggling reader became disheartened. I hate, hate reading lurid descriptions of self-harming. Lewis had been a believeable boy who needed to be loved, but he turned into someone who chose to have pointless sex with his stepmother, to say things that hurt people, to take comfort in an aged whore, to burn down churches, to be violent and frightening, and yet we are expected to understand him still, to excuse him still, to like him still, like Kit – to love him for as long as it takes. We do, of course, but it is only part of ourselves and Sadie Jones does not allow the other part a voice. Or is Kit that voice?
Kit is young and lithe and boyish, and she is brave because she allows her father to beat her and whip her over and over again and says nothing and does not allow his violence to stain her innocence, her virtue. Now we know we’re deep in misery memoir ville. And this reader is deeply disillusioned. Lewis didn’t have to do those things and Kit is not brave.
The message of the book is that the love of a good man or woman can redeem the damaged soul, but that’s not true. You can love someone and love them and love them and it won’t make a difference. Lewis’s mother and his stepmother know that.
The only person who can redeem Lewis is Lewis though many a woman and man have hoped otherwise. It’s not that Lewis might not have felt like doing all those things, that sex might not have seemed a good substitute for love, that his anger might have not filled him ripe to bursting, but, ultimately, his father is right when he gives him Rudyard Kipling’s poem to read: “Or being hated, don’t give way to hating”. And we see the long tail of the war, handed down from father to son. And how it doesn’t have to shape us. A friend shared a Persian saying with me at the weekend. The man with good manners is asked where he learnt his manners. He replies “From a man with bad manners”.
The book has a happy ending, which it shouldn’t, but which is a good thing, considering all the muck you have to wade through with Lewis to get there. I can think of two similar men we’ve known, each of them Lewis in their own way. As far as I know one is still hell bent on his own destruction, while the other now devotes his life to going round schools sharing his experience in the hope that he can prevent others from travelling the same road. I’m not sure that it’s love that made the difference: I think it was a will not to let the badness win.
I wonder what the others will think.
Interesting fact: Sadie Jones has prosopagnosia.
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,