I was thrilled to receive an ARC of The Outcast, a debut novel releasing next month by Londoner Sadie Jones. First novels are exciting for their promise, like the early days of spring when the earth begins to smell warm and the sunshine beckons and you consider just how long you can sit outside with a book before your fingernails turn blue; breathtaking first novels are like having the season’s first songbird actually swoop down and serenade you while you are out enjoying the sun. The Outcast is that birdsong-crowned day.
The protagonist of the story, set in a 1950s London suburb, is Lewis, who is ten years old when he loses his mother in an accidental death. His father’s blinding grief and the town’s judgmental social structure lead to Lewis’s neglect and eventual disillusionment, and as a teenager, he becomes increasingly self-destructive. It takes a series of tragic events for him to realize that the family members and townspeople he’s been comparing himself to are, in fact, as broken as he is; and in a final act of redemption he exposes what lies beneath the veneer of their hypocrisy.
Jones’s prose is vivid and lyrical. She is equally adept at communicating the perspectives of children, teenagers, and adults. Some scenes are lovely (the kids playing by the river, Kit relishing her jazz records) and some scenes are disturbing (including physical abuse of a child and explicit sex between a willing minor and an adult); in every scene, the emotions are palpable. Her characters—and thus her readers—fully inhabit the luminous world she has created, with no false steps. And her handling of the theme is perceptive, artfully reminding us that no cruelty or heartbreak is beyond redemption.
I’ll say no more for fear of spoiling the story, except that this is a beautifully tragic novel with an indefinite but hopeful ending. I’ll be watching closely for Jones’s next offering.