The Outcast
Sadie Jones
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Buy *The Outcast* by Sadie Jones online

The Outcast
Sadie Jones
Harper Perennial
368 pages
April 2009
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Nineteen-year-old Lewis Aldridge has just spent two years serving in Brixton Prison when he finally returns to the family home just outside of the bucolic village of Waterford, deep within the Home Counties of England. After everything that has transpired, Lewis would never have imagined that he would have a happy homecoming. But as his stepmother, Alice, lovingly prepares his room for him, Lewis assures himself that he's going to make a promise and reassure Gilbert, his father, that this time things will be very different.

Although connected by blood, there is little actual love between father and son. Over the years, each has become ensnared in a disturbing alliance of denial and falsehood, their inevitable fracture caused by the untimely and accidental death of Lewis's mother, Elizabeth. Although on the surface Lewis and Gilbert's life together may be serene, beneath there lurks a dark, angry battle for survival and dominance.

A few years earlier, in 1945, Lewis indeed led a privileged and rather isolated existence with his mother, both living in an emotional and physical vacuum. Upon the conclusion of the Second World War, Gilbert returns, bringing with him a "maleness" that Lewis finds oddly threatening. Yes, he is exciting, and obviously there to be adored, but he's also quite foreign. His return challenges the delicate balance that has been established.

Faced with the prospect of finding employment, Gilbert signs on to work for his neighbor, the building magnate Dicky Carmichael, a coarse, angry man whose presence sets Gilbert's teeth on edge. The prospects, however, of using Dicky to make money in the post-war building boom is just too attractive for Gilbert to ignore. Gilbert's only real consolation is the love of the lovely and willful Elizabeth, her headstrong ways and unique manner of looking at things the perfect antidote for a life of furious work.

For Lewis, however, these formative years are a precursor for what is to come, his destiny shaped by an afternoon picnic that goes terribly wrong. In the woods by the river, a devastating event unleashes a dormant anger within him. Under the shade, near the weeping willows with the heat of summer almost stifling, Lewis is left to see his drunken mother, her paleness, and then her form merely a dark shadow, her body underwater and trapped forever, unable to move, and Lewis unable to rescue her.

In the ensuing months, Lewis and Gilbert remain in strategic limbo. Gilbert enters the world of cocktails and London parties, going from one occasion to another, discovering a new type of popularity and eventually marrying the dependable but needy Alice. Neither father nor son ever mention Elizabeth or the events of that devastating day, the silence around her memory almost brittle and just too dangerous to contemplate.

Meanwhile, Lewis becomes involved in affairs of the Carmichael's, particularly that of Dickie Carmichael's impressionable young daughters, Tasmin and Kit. Here in the privileged confines of their house events take on a bizarre twist, with allegations of physical abuse by their father. Lewis's tenuous and loyal connection to Kit, and his need to perhaps be her knight in shining armor, ultimately proves to be his undoing.

Encapsulated by his unruly drinking and dangerous self-abuse, Lewis finds his life slowly slipping away as he's cast off from his family and labeled a troublemaker by the influential Dickie Carmichael and by the wider Waterford community. Unfortunately, it is up to poor Gilbert to shoulder the results of Lewis's truancy: the breaking of a boy's nose, the willful drunkenness, all of this public embarrassment making him helplessly angry and totally at a loss as to what to do with his errant son.

Like a damaged bird, Jones plays out her broken young protagonist's journey among the English privileged in a life characterized by little love or real affection. Throughout the course of this novel, Lewis's voice is deliberately flat, an inventive narrative technique that perhaps reflects his own emotionally closed vacuum, the story circumscribed by his strong capacity for denial - at his mother's untimely death, and at his troubled place in the rarified world of the Aldridges.

Although somewhat clichéd and predictable in places, especially throughout the final third, readers will nevertheless find this tortured story of a troubled soul enticing and totally compelling. Jones' re-imagining of 1950's upper-class British life adds a new dimension to the old standbys of misunderstood young men, ambitious executives, abusive fathers, and brittle but tenacious stepmothers, even as she brings to life the stultifying hypocrisies and class-ridden strictures of the time.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2008

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