This hotly-tipped debut certainly delivers. The prose is clean and clear; so disciplined and spare it verges on thin. Then, sporadically, a kind of fever comes over the novel, and we plunge into one dramatic episode or another: self-harm, incestuous seduction, arson, battery, drowning... These scenes are handled with great skill and conviction, but recur so relentlessly that you sometimes feel as if you were reading an extremely classy misery memoir – A Child Called It retold by Richard Yates, perhaps.
We begin with the release of a young man, Lewis Aldridge, from jail in 1957. He is the privileged son of a Surrey stockbroker: how has he come to be a blight on his family and community? (The maid is afraid to be left alone in the house with him.) What was his crime, and his motivation? With a title like The Outcast, you wonder if Sadie Jones is heading for destination Camus, but there is nothing existential about her view. Mersault had no justification for his crimes of disaffection in The Outsider; there are a thousand little reasons why Lewis ends up harming himself and others. Jones sets them out with vivid exactitude.
Perhaps Lewis's biggest problem is living in the Fifties. He calls his father "sir", receives no counselling when his mother dies in an appalling accident, and is generally expected to behave like a small adult throughout his childhood. There is violence in the post-war Surrey air and Lewis seems to absorb it, and turn it upon himself. The descriptions of his self-harm are psychologically astute and precisely articulated. After deliberately burning the soles of his feet on the beach, Lewis feels them prickling inside his sandals, getting comfort from the "fascinating discomfort". The behaviour takes hold. "The bad things he did had been useful at first, but now they were stronger than he was."
We understand Lewis, and feel for him. However, this comes at a cost: oppositional characters are two-dimensional bullies. Dicky Carmichael is a pillar of the community, but at home he ogles his pretty daughter and hits the plainer one. The middle classes do not come out of this novel well. Their institutions fail Lewis, and he abuses them – particularly the church. There is a nicely underplayed passage in which Lewis hears the vicar talking, but not his words: a Mersault moment, if you like. In another echo of a famously lost boy, Lewis lets his thumb rest peacefully on the back of a girl's neck – like Holden Caulfield, he just wants stillness, not moving or stroking or any of that BS.
Comparisons with Holden Caulfield, however, remind us of what The Outcast lacks. Powerful, atmospheric and acutely observed, it is almost untarnished by wit.
There is an excruciatingly embarrassing lunch in which social scandal causes all the guests to cancel, yet the side of beef for 16 is still presented at table by the staff. Here, for just a moment, middle-class mores have been made faintly ridiculous, rather than violent or pernicious. It's a huge relief. This Fifties novel gives us more than enough reasons why the Sixties were necessary. As Lewis Aldridge heads off into that decade, we feel he truly deserves to enjoy himself.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies