By Sadie Jones
Harper. 347 pp. $24.95
As this first novel by a young British writer opens, Lewis Aldridge is leaving Brixton Prison after serving two years for arson. It is August 1957, and he is 19 years old. The act for which he was incarcerated was committed out of sorrow, anger and desperation. Nine years ago, when he was 10, his mother, Elizabeth, perhaps somewhat under the influence of a bottle of wine she had drunk while he and she had a picnic, drowned in a river not far from their house in Surrey. His reaction to her death, which he was too small and confused to prevent, was to withdraw into himself; he had been popular before the drowning, but afterwards "he was so quiet and odd, and no-one really had anything to say to him any more."
Now he is back at home, hoping to begin his life anew, but home is "just self-conscious and tense and everything he'd hated about home before." His father, Gilbert, is cold and distant. After the death of Lewis's mother, Gilbert had felt an instinctive impulse "to take his son's head in his hands and crush the feeling from it. He wanted to hold him hard and kiss him and make Lizzie come back to them through loving him badly enough," but he resists the impulse and keeps Lewis at a distance. "After his mother's death Lewis instinctively cast around for other attachments," but he didn't find them. A couple of neighboring girls, Tamsin and Kit Carmichael, were kind to him, but the lovely Tamsin was older and hotly pursued by more eligible boys while Kit, though instinctively sympathetic and tender, was too young to hold his attention.
So just as he left two years ago as an outcast, now he returns as one. His difficulties are compounded by the presence of his stepmother, Alice, who is in her mid-30s and has been unable to have a child by Gilbert. She wants to be kind to Lewis, but she is too young and inexperienced to know how: "Even when she tried to be kind he turned away from her, but all the time he hoped, shamefully, in his child's heart, that she would notice him, and hold him, and help. . . . He knew he needed her help, or somebody's. He scared himself." This is because he has been damaging himself in self-destructive, if not outright suicidal, ways. Alice tries to take care of him and to be sympathetic, but she also recoils:
"Alice felt entirely cold. She felt she had come to the end of something. It was as if she and Gilbert had been fixed in time by their childlessness, and Lewis and his vile damage were binding them too. She wanted to be released. She had bandaged his arm and wiped away his blood too many times, fighting her pity and disgust, while Gilbert led his pristine office life. She was like a nurse in a war patching up soldiers so that they could go out and fight again, but it was his war, and his father's, and she didn't want to be locked into his secret."
So she tells Gilbert what Lewis has been doing. He responds, as in the past, not with an attempt to reach out, but with chilly censoriousness. "The worst had happened between them, it seemed," and now to all intents and purposes Lewis is alone. Meantime, the town turns against him, in particular Dicky Carmichael, an arrogant, coarse man who is the father of Tamsin and Kit and, worse, is Gilbert's boss. Dicky presents himself to the town and the world as a model of virtue and rectitude, but within the walls of his mansion he is a monster. He routinely beats his wife -- "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" -- and eventually begins to do the same to Kit, apparently because such love as he possesses is reserved for the delectable Tamsin.
Obviously, Sadie Jones is saying that behind the prim fa¿ade of this 1950s town lie grim secrets and pervasive hypocrisy. That will not come as news to anyone who remembers Peyton Place, which appeared half a century ago and scandalized American readers. The scandal has long since worn off, so what Jones tells us isn't exactly news, but that doesn't make it any less true. Dicky Carmichael is an abuser. Dear Lizzie drank too much at times, and Alice drinks even more as her insecurities and unhappiness increase. Gilbert is judgmental and icily cruel.
Et cetera. Except for Kit, who is now well into her teens and beginning to show some evidence of loveliness, the town has nothing to offer Lewis, "nothing clever, nothing kind, just judgement and gossip." When she was just 11, Kit developed a crush on Lewis: "She knew she was in love with him. He was her secret. He was her imagining. She didn't long or yearn, or other things she had read about being in love, but she had him in her heart. Sometimes she felt surprised that he didn't know it." For a long time, though, Tamsin is the only Carmichael girl who interests Lewis:
"Seeing Tamsin was more and more like being visited from another planet. She amazed him with her blitheness and her confidence and he envied her. He couldn't think what her life must be like, or what her interest in him was, and while he appreciated being able to look at her, he felt no connection with her at all. He would have liked to be able to join in. He didn't know how."
Tamsin leads him on, then turns against him with the casual cruelty that beautiful girls sometimes inflict on clumsy, yearning boys. He is devastated, but Kit's faith in him doesn't waver. "Look, Kit," he tells her. "I can only do you harm. I've got nothing you need, do you understand? Nothing." Yet she persists: "I see you. You think you're dark, and there's all this darkness around you, but when I look at you . . . you're like a shining thing. You're light. You just are. You always were."
Slowly, Lewis begins to understand that Kim's love for him is very real and that she offers what he most needs: "To be so lost, and then to find comfort, was strange for Lewis and he didn't trust it, but it did feel good, that they should be kind to each other, and that being kind to each other . . . was a precious thing." That, though, is scarcely the end of Lewis's problems. Dicky Carmichael will do everything he can to keep him away from both of his daughters, and the British armed services have a say in things as well, as Lewis is scheduled to report momentarily for the draft. Clearly, there is a lot between him and the happiness he so desperately seeks, but as the novel approaches its final pages, there is at least the possibility of his getting part of the way there.
It's an arresting story, but The Outcast has plenty of problems. To my taste the most serious of them is Sadie Jones's prose. The extracts quoted above are straightforward enough, but at times she seems to have an irresistible urge to enter the Bad Hemingway Contest. Thus: "The suffocating feeling left him and he felt bright and fast and full of something good." And: "He walked along Whitehall and into Trafalgar Square and the city was vast and battered and mysterious." And: "He walked to the National Gallery and stood in front of it. It was unlit, and he pictured all the paintings on the walls in the dark inside and it was a nice thought." And: "The tennis court was some way from the house and it was a grass court and smooth and perfect." And: "She was a fine girl and he felt her fineness and his surprise at finding her and he didn't question it at all."
Enough said. A little of that goes a long, long way. Nor does it help that for most of the way the novel's tone is unremittingly lugubrious, lacking even a hint of humor, much less comic relief. It's easy enough to feel sorry for Lewis but hard to be very interested in him; and his evolving relationship with Kit, though of course necessary to the plot, is something less than convincing. The Outcast has won a good deal of praise in England, but it's likely to have rougher going over here. *
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.