Elmore Leonard said: I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ''full of rape and adverbs.''

Sunday, 27 April 2008


Aren’t I supposed to be reviewing books, or something?

This endeavor is hampered somewhat by the fact that I haven’t been reading a great deal recently, and what I have been reading doesn't neatly fit into the definition of ‘romance.’ Next on the list is Lee Child’s latest testosterone fueled offering, Nothing to Lose, so unless I want this blog to wither on the vine, I thought I’d just go ahead and review something.

Lewis Aldridge is the Outcast in question, a 19 year old boy straight out of jail. The year is 1957 and Lewis returning to his middle class home in the English suburbs, where he has long been an outsider, treated with suspicion and distrust because he won’t - can’t - conform to the norms of this closed and affluent community.

The story switches from the present (the summer of Lewis’ return) to the events that led to his incarceration; his father’s return from the war, the death of his mother and the emotional isolation that followed this devastating tragedy.

I haven’t read a great many books set in the 50s (oddly, though, I’ve started to watch the excellent Mad Men and it bears an uncanny similarity to The Outcast in its depiction of affluence and dysfunction), and I wasn’t sure I’d like this. But I read it in one sitting. In one sitting, with tears streaming down my face (I’m easy) and my heart utterly wrenched for poor little Lewis. Why won’t someone hug him, I wondered, wiping fat drops from my cheeks.

Jones has a distinctive writing voice, spare, matter of fact, and she moves the story along very briskly (interestingly, she started out as a screenwriter and this has served her well; the pacing is excellent). I found the writing style - with its very long sentences and multitudes of ‘and’s and then’s - annoying at first, but it’s a deliberate choice to get us inside Lewis’ active ten year old mind. As Lewis grows, so the voice shifts and matures.

What I liked best about the book was the world itself, the claustrophobic, affluent world of the middle classes in the 50s, the glossy exterior and the seething, dark underbelly - best demonstrated by the wealthy Carmichaels, headed by the violent and brutish Dicky:
Dicky often hit Claire, it was his habit, and part of the pattern of the family, and it wasn’t questioned between them at all. None of them had ever, ever referred to it, but Kit got so angry it made her cry with rage.

This from the point of little Kit, another outcast.

What I found absolutely fascinating was the almost ritualised nature of the violence Dicky inflicts on the women in his family, and their acceptance of it, which often bordered on complicity.

Jones’ depiction of the women in this period is also fantastic; from Lewis’ mother, the vibrant, unconventional Elizabeth; the cold emptiness of Claire Carmichael and the growing discontent of Alice, the pretty trophy wife. Again, on the surface everything is fine, but just beneath it, these are deeply unhappy and dissatisfied people, who drink too much, who are abused or neglected by their husbands, who have no means of escape.
She tried to have strict rules about her drinking, but the wait for her sherry at half-past twelve made the morning seem very long. She absolutely wasn’t allowed a drink after her coffee at lunch, so that meant fitting it all in and knowing she then had to wait till half-past six for her cocktail. She knew it shouldn’t mean so much and it was important to stay in control, but she often found it hard to remember why...

Of course, the heart of the story is Lewis. Bright, thoughtful, sensitive Lewis who is very close to his mother and whose death leaves him utterly adrift in a world where he cannot express his grief, and where his repressed emotions leave him prone to violent outbursts. He becomes an outsider, because he cannot be like the others, and his obvious dysfunction is not tolerated by a tight knit community determined to pretend everything is just fine.

I could go on. There is Lewis’ grieving father, who cannot console his son and is the unwitting agent of his son’s downfall. There is Kit, the observer, who knows everything is wrong but it powerless to do anything about it. Beautiful, vain Tamsin and the weak wiled Alice. Then there is the powerful, evil, monstrous figure of Dicky Carmichael, the embodiment of all that is wrong with the world.

There are many dark moments, and few bright ones. At times, I wondered if things could get any worse - and they did. It is a desperately sad story, but ultimately uplifting. If you’re wondering why on earth you should pick this book up - well, there are moments of grace, and the story ends on a good note.

Sadie Jones said she wanted to write about an outsider, an outcast, someone who is rejected by society, but it is society itself that is damaged and corrupt. I think she did a really good job. This is her first novel, and it has been nominated for the Orange Prize (which she is strongly tipped to win).

I met her at a reading a few days ago and I can only add that she is also quite the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. Doesn’t really seem fair.

An A. Not a romance, exactly, but an engrossing and intelligent read.


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