Set in England in the 1950s, ‘The Outcast’ by Sadie Jones tells the story of nineteen year old Lewis Aldridge and his return to his childhood home in a small village in Surrey after spending two years in prison. Tensions both at home and in the community soon become darker as it becomes clear that Lewis will never really be able to make a fresh start in Waterford and let go of his troubled past. Never has the British stiff upper lip seemed so resistant to change.
‘The Outcast’ is Sadie Jones’s debut novel and it shows. The strength of the story lies almost entirely in the underlying sense of repression and subtle, claustrophobic menace which lingers throughout the story. Jones skilfully builds, sustains and slowly releases tension throughout the narrative as events spin out of control. However, I think there can be quite a fine line between writing being sparse in a good way, like in the works of Jeanette Winterson or Cormac McCarthy for example, and writing being a bit colourless which unfortunately is the case here. I found The Guardian’s review on the inside cover which stated that “Comparisons with Ian McEwan are inevitable” quite perplexing as McEwan’s use of language is so much richer than the writing presented here although I’m guessing that this refers to comparisons with ‘Atonement’ which does share some similarities.
The story itself becomes surprisingly brutal once it gathers pace with some challenging themes including self-harm, domestic violence and the main character developing something of an Oedipus complex. However, I thought the sparse writing, especially the dialogue, prevented me from feeling more empathy towards the characters, particularly Lewis and Kit, than I would have done if it had been written in a different style. I still found ‘The Outcast’ psychologically affecting though and the most important aspect of the story – the build up of tension – is certainly the most successful.