There was a bluebottle crashing against the glass. It explored the edges, and seemed to search for an opening and then went straight at the panes of glass in a series of small assaults and then back to the edges again, and then it rested and then it went for the glass again, hitting itself, and it didn't stop, but carried on with it, trying to get out and not getting out and trying again.
If there was ever a book to fit the stereotype of the Orange Prize (and of women's writing more generally) at first glance, it is Sadie Jones' debut novel, The Outcast. Here we have all the quintessential elements of the domestic crisis, and of the familial breakdown. There is the boy who has lost his mother and turned wild; there is his repressed father and infertile stepmother; there is his only real friend, a young girl suffering domestic abuse; all packaged within the oppressive social mileau of 1950s middle-England. It appears to be just the sort of 'small-scale', claustrophobic drama that Muriel Gray, a former Orange judge, dismissed last year. And, yes, in some senses it is that. Certainly, it is claustrophobic. But: it is also a highly accomplished piece of writing, a polished meditation on the psychologies of childhood and parental loss, told in a striking, unusual prose style. So striking, in fact, that I hope it transcends its natural readership (that would be: women, aged 30 and upwards) and reaches the wider audience it deserves.
Lewis Aldridge is six years old in 1945, and barely knows his father, Gilbert, who has been away fighting in the deserts of North Africa since he was a baby. He has spent his early childhood in the soft embrace of his generously eccentric mother, Elizabeth. She has poured everything into caring for him in her husband's absence. In return, Lewis has grown to depend on her, and to love her deeply. Too deeply, perhaps. It is inevitable that he should be jealous on his father's return; that he should feel deprived of something essential. Travelling to meet Gilbert for the first time in London, he feels that if he 'thought about his father and his stomach any more he'd definitely feel sick.' When his mother kisses him good-night later that day, he knows something has changed but still revels in her physical closeness:
She leaned and kissed him. He loved her closeness and the smell of her, but the kiss was a tiny bit wet. He felt further away from her than usual, and not sure what to think about anything...She held him and hugged him hard. She stroked his hair. Her blouse was slippery on his face, her skin was warm, and her pearls dug pleasantly into his forehead... He hear her heart beat and and felt absolutely at home.
The sexual energy of this passage, and Lewis' clinging to the maternal breast, would have had Freud rocking back on his heels, nodding, knowing, thinking: a textbook case of the Oedipal complex. In love with his mother, Lewis nurtures an inhibiting jealousy towards his father. He doesn't hate him, at least not at first. It is just that Gilbert is terribly difficult to love; difficult to approach. He treats his son like a thing, an obstacle to his relationship with Elizabeth (which, in a sense, he is).
Nevertheless, as a child Lewis shows great promise of becoming an ordinary, relatively well adjusted man. He is popular, polite and thoughtful; preternaturally kind for a little boy:
He was the sort of boy who was popular because he was easy to be around and not demanding particularly... He wrote long stories and poems about sea battles in classical settings or doomed cavalry charges - not to show to people - just because they were fun to do and he could travel in his mind when he wrote them, and make the world just.
He is friends with the neighbours' children - Tamsin and Kit Carmichael, the daughters of his father's boss, amongst others - and spends long, bucolic summers playing with them. In scenes that showcase her sense of period and place, Sadie Jones' beautifully evokes the heady freedom of his pre-adolescence.
Then, at the most formative juncture of Lewis' life, his mother dies in a freak accident. It is the end of the summer and they have taken a picnic down to the river in the woods, just the two of them. Drunk on heat and wine, Elizabeth drowns while helping Lewis to free an old boat from the silt of the stream. He can only stand and watch her white body struggling under the water, helpless and helplessly confused.
It is a moment that showcases Jones' literary style perfectly. She writes in long, conjunctive sentences, using 'and' and 'then' to stack actions and emotions, one on top of the other. She employs simple, often mono-syllabic words. She isn't in the least poetic, and breaks all the rules about repeating words in the same sentence. The cadence is often awkward, even tedious. The rhythm similar to stories written by children: And then this happened, and then that happened, and then we all went home and we felt sad. It is difficult to describe the effect - it is harried, attempting to capture the rush and tumble of even the shallowest thought process - although it would be true to say that it doesn't always work. The passage about the blue bottle at the top of this post is a case in point. At times Jones' is working too hard for too shallow an effect - it is like skittering across an icy surface, out of control. But the breathless 'and', 'and', 'and' is necessary at the point of Elizabeth's drowning. It perfectly captures Lewis' distress:
He couldn't remember any of the houses, or any of the villages, or where the path went; there was just the wood and no picture of anything past it. He started back to the water, but it seemed hopeless and he was so frightened, so he ran towards the trees again. He imagined someone walking int he woods just near him with their dog, and he thought they'd be bound to help him. He shouted 'Help!' - thinking the person with the dog would hear, and then he remembered there wasn't a person with dog and his mother was under the water and he didn't have to find the person with the dog, and he ran back to the river and stopped.
Five 'ands' in that last sentence, and everyone of them perfectly placed. It is a way of writing that relies on grammar and syntax for its effect, rather than on the words themselves, and I can't help but admire the bravery of it. I found it was best captured when read aloud, even if there were occasions when the place of emphasis in a sentence was a puzzle.
Gilbert's reaction is drastic and inhuman - Elizabeth's death neatly severs any emotional connection he has felt to his son. Lewis is promptly sent back to boarding school, psychologically arrested and disturbed by his grief. Their mutual desperation, which should unite them, pushes them apart. Their love for Elizabeth, which is so heart-felt, isn't mutable - they can't reach out to each other with it. Instead, they let it fester. The Outcast is set in the 1950s afterall, amongst a generation who had repression and the emotional cover-up down to a fine art. It was always going to be a novel with seething tensions beneath the surface.
It is not long before Lewis becomes violent and destructive, towards others and himself, because he has nowhere else to put the raw energy of his grief. He hits out at school and gets into fights; as he progresses into his teens he begins to drink, to sleep around and to self-harm. His is a drastic, devastating spiral into social iniquity, from beloved schoolboy to isolated delinquint. And, again, Gilbert fails him, fails to understand him as we all fail from time to time. Worse than that, he plants a seed of self-loathing in his desperate son:
'Are you a bad person, to do a bad thing like this? Is that what you want to be? I want you to listen to me very, very carefully. You'd better not make your mother's death an excuse. That would be a terrible thing to do, and like hurting her again.'
Which gets to the heart of Gilbert's actions: he blames Lewis for his mother's death. As Lewis gets older, and more unreachable, other people begin to do the same thing - his new destructiveness convinces them of the worst. The neighbours assume he must have had something to do with her death, that if he didn't murder her, he did something equally as bad.
Salvation might have come in the form of Alice, the woman Gilbert marries less than a year after Elizabeth's death. But, ultimately, she is too weak to do anything real to help. His loneliness frightens her. She wants something from him instead - a salve for her childlessness - and because he is incapable of being the carefree, bouncing offspring of her dreams, she looses faith in him altogether:
Alice watched Lewis, and she came to think of him as broken. She tried not to, and she never told anyone, least of all Gilbert, who so needed to think he'd grow out of it, but she felt that he was broken and that there was nothing to be done about it. She hoped he would mend, but she lost sight of the idea that she could help. He was like a damaged bird. And they always die, she thought.
Eventually, Lewis is so thoroughly convinced of his 'badness', of his being damaged, that his coping mechanisms overpower his self-control: The bad things he did had been useful at first, but now they were stronger than he was. He knew he needed her help, or somebody's. He scared himself.
Who better to help him than Kit Carmichael, one of his childhood playmates, suffering in an isolated, lonely position not unlike his own. Oh Kit, poor Kit, first the victim of her mother's indifference - 'I'm sick and tired of you, Kit, you do nothing but make a mess and spoil things.' - she falls foul of her father's violent tendencies as she enters her teens:
It had to be done, he thought, it had to be done. He felt ashamed of how excited he felt, but pleased he hadn't really hurt her... Children should be disciplined. Hitting one's wife was irrational and had always seemed shaming to both of them, but punishing one's daughter, even so harshly, was within the realms of proper behaviour. Perhaps Kit would be improved.
She escapes the beatings into the vivid world of music, scrapping money to buy singles, and books, reading Anna Karenina at the age of 11. And she thinks of Lewis, whom she has always liked and sought to protect in her own ineffectual, childish ways. Instinctively she is the braver and stronger of the two and, whatever this implies for gender difference, the better emotionally adjusted:
She felt she was meeting an inevitable fate. Part of her wanted to run away and cry and find somebody to save her, anybody at all, but most of her felt strong, like a soldier. She thought of being brave and coping. She thought, I'll have to be very strong to manage this, and I won't let him see how frightened I am.
Jones' makes good hay out of her novel's period setting - she has mastered the balance between character and place well for a debut writer. She captures the asceticism of post-war morality perfectly, and the crushing oppression of the Aldridges' social circle. There are some deliciously dark moments when Lewis, observing his father bending his knee to his neighbours at Church and luncheons, actively seeks to transgress the social norm. Like many teenagers of his generation, brought up on the austerity of the 1940s, he pushes hard at the boundaries of acceptability; with hindsight, he is a precursor to the rebellious zeitgeist of the 1960s. His destructiveness is a microcosmic expression of the urge for change that infected an entire generation of men and women, who could not invest in the world their father's had fought to maintain. Not for them the deadening regime of home, office, club, home, nor the straight-laced repression of a family life held at arm's length. When Lewis looses his mother, he looses his only emotional link with the past world represented by his father, and although he spends much of the book trying to claw himself back to the innocence of childhood, he eventually realises that he belongs to a very different future. Of course, he is also the best placed to uncover the turmoil that everyone hides under their patina of respectability. It is that old chestnut of a revelation: we're all broken:
He was a wrecked person. The difference now was that all his life he had thought his father and Dicky and Alice and Tamsin and all of the people who managed in the world weren't wrecked people, and now he knew they were. It looked liked everybody was in a broken, bad world that fitted them just right.
I don't think there is any denying the sheer literary quality of The Outcast. It is very good indeed. Everything and everyone in it is well drawn and well expressed; it is a tight atmospheric piece of storytelling. But perhaps you won't be surprised, given the plot arc I have described, that I have some wider, more general problems with it. My main complaint is that what Jones' gives us, in the end, is a very old, worn, tired denouement - woman mends man's heart with her love; man protects woman from violence with his strength. Kit, with her quiet suffering and her emotional insight, is the typical saviour figure, seeing Lewis for what he is by virtue of her feminine intuition. Her pain is well controlled, very polite and proper and not really angry at all. Whereas Lewis is the typical boy - enraged and turning his rage into physical violence, against himself and against others. His sexuality expresses itself physically, and he sleeps with at least two older women, whereas Kit's sexuality is subsumed beneath the sentiment of her love for Lewis. We are only aware of her body insofar as it is beaten by her father. The gender roles are incredibly stagnant.
And surely we've had stories and novels and films about the repressive social mores of the post-war years before, told just as winsomely. We all know about broken families shoring up their reputations and acting their parts as loving wife, obedient daughter and dutiful son. We all know what lies beneath the surface. Sadie Jones' is saying that each one of us is cast out in our private desert, with our own personal griefs and failures and desires, and she is saying it in a very moving, very charming way. But she isn't saying anything new about it, when I desperately wanted her to.