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The Outcast by Sadie Jones

cover    The Outcast by Sadie Jones 

The Outcast, a first novel by Sadie Jones, won the prestigious British Costa Book Award, (formerly the Whitbread Award) for best First Novel in 2008, and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize. This usually indicates to me that this is a novel worth reading. The Outcast was no exception.

It is August 1957 and nineteen year old Lewis Aldridge has been released from prison. He takes himself to Victoria Station in London and heads home, to a village in the south of England.

We now go back in time to Lewis’ childhood, idyllic at first. He is an only child, his father off at war in the beginning, coming home when Lewis is a young boy. Those years of the war had left Lewis and his mother alone together, forming a strong bond. Lewis is ten years old when his mother suddenly dies; he is more than devastated.

Families deal with grief and tragedy in all sorts of ways, often not capable of giving each other the support they need – and in this case no one was able to give young Lewis the care, attention, and love that he so desperately required. His father, Gilbert, found it very difficult to be with Lewis, to be so reminded of his wife, that he spent as little time as possible with his son. Most of the year Lewis was at boarding school where his mother’s death was never referred to, and at home in the holidays with his father “the silence around her memory had become so brittle and dangerous that neither dared break it”. Gilbert quickly re-marries; Alice, a young and innocent girl, with no idea of the life that is in store for her.

As a young teen Lewis’ life becomes an escalating spiral of self-destruction.  And drinking. The time is the 1950’ s – there was a lot of social drinking – and much beyond. Lewis takes a drink for the first time “The drink felt hot in his empty stomach. He felt his throat burning dryly…. the hit of it in his blood and his heart felt it too. The hit went through him and it was dangerous and comforting….His thoughts were slowed down, and the repetitive, loathing rush of them eased. He lifted the bottle and drank some more. …He knew he’d found something then. He knew he’d found something that worked.”

If you ever want to comprehend what is going through the mind of a self-destructive teen read this book. It has left me with a better understanding of the pain and the overwhelming need for love and understanding required to heal the broken heart of a child – and perhaps to save them from self-destruction.

Gilbert Aldridge is employed by his neighbour, the wealthy Dickey Carmichael. Dickey is the husband of Claire – who he beats; father of Tamsin - the beautiful, the perfect and spoiled daughter; and Kit - the younger daughter who is never good enough. Tamsin and Kit are well aware of their father’s abuse “Dickey often hit Claire, it was his habit, and part of the pattern of the family, and it wasn’t even questioned between them at all.” At the age of six, Kit imagined killing him and thought that God would then tell her father that he is “a very very bad man and I’m going to send you to hell.” It is Kit who later suffers her father’s abuse, as she grows older.

It is Tamsin that Lewis is attracted to, but it is Kit who loves him. It is Tamsin who plays with Lewis, and in manipulating Lewis she is infuriating her father. And Lewis is finding it more and more difficult to cope – he’s been in trouble for fighting and Gilbert is threatening that there will be consequences. “if Lewis was careful, he could keep it all under control, and still get by at school, just about. He just has to balance it right. He just had to keep control”

At a local gathering “Lewis sat at the card table by the window and went invisible”. By April 1955 it is all coming to a head. When Lewis sits in church with his father and stepmother he looks around at the congregation – what sort of lives to do all these people have “None of these children knew anything, and they thought tiny things important and cried over test results and cricket scores. He was locked out of it. He couldn’t even remember when he’d had any idea how to live like other people seemed to live.”

Lewis snaps and the consequence is that he is imprisoned.

We re-join the story where we began and move forward. Tamsin is the first to see Lewis on his return, as he walks along the road she pulls up in her car and offers him a ride home – and he re-enters the world he left. The last place he needs to be.

As I read, I so badly wanted this boy to find a way out of his grief, into healing, and into life. There were a couple of opportunities along the way when someone could have made a huge difference in Lewis’ life if they’d only held him, or expressed their love and concern. Sadie Jones, herself, in interviews says repeatedly “he’ll be alright, he’ll be alright.” I hope he is, and I thank Sadie Jones for her insight, and for this intensely absorbing book.

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