The Outcast. By Sadie Jones. Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 345 pp, $32.95, hardcover
It’s quite possible to burn through Sadie Jones’s debut novel, The Outcast, in a few hours. Even if it’s the first sunny day in weeks, you’ll pull the window shut, close the blinds, and happily give yourself over to this obsessive little narrative, which skillfully blends a high-end British soap opera with a wounded-boy-gone-bad plot. Think The Forsyte Saga meets Rebel Without a Cause.
Set in the velvety confines of a tony British suburb in the 1950s, The Outcast begins with 19-year-old Lewis Aldridge leaving Brixton Prison after serving two years for burning down his hometown church. His release acts as a fulcrum for the narrative, which traces his earlier fall into delinquency after he witnesses his mother’s drowning at age 10, and his reentry into the repressive family and community that have branded him a pariah.
Nothing really changes for Lewis after he leaves prison. The juxtaposition of a world in which everything is better left unsaid with Lewis, the brawling, thieving, self-destructive protagonist, makes for compelling reading. Downstairs there is the clinking of glasses and the stirring of cocktails, while upstairs Lewis drags a razorblade up his forearm in an effort to feel anything at all—“real pain and regret and something to hold on to and to fight with”.
Lewis doesn’t say much, but as he matures, his rage and cauterized pain are a big turn-on for the ladies. From Kit and Tamsin Carmichael, the daughters of Dicky Carmichael—a man of no small influence with a secret penchant for beating his wife and daughters—to his very own stepmother, whose marriage to Lewis’s emotionally removed father yields a hollow and lonely existence, Lewis is a magnet for females who want to help him.
The Outcast strains credulity at times, particularly in a thread in which Lewis connects with the London jazz scene. And the ending is as silly as a soap-opera finale. But what sets this novel apart is the author’s technical skill. Trained as a screenwriter, Jones brings a dramatic arc to every scene, while her restrained prose renders the repression and sublimation at this novel’s core into something combustible.