The village was asleep, with all the people behind the walls and through the windows and up the stairs of the little houses blind and deaf in their beds while anything might happen. Lewis headed down the middle of the road and he kept falling and had to remember to get back on his feet.
He reached the churchyard and stood in the dark with the church even darker above him.
–from The Outcast by Sadie Jones
It’s 1957. Nineteen-year-old Lewis Aldridge is returning by train to his home in Waterford where he has just served a two-year prison term for a crime that shocked the sleepy Surrey community. Wearing a new suit, he carries money his father Gilbert sent — to keep him away, he suspects — and a straight razor. No one greets him at the station.
Twelve years earlier, seven-year-old Lewis and his spirited mother Elizabeth are on the same train, bringing Gilbert home from war. Waterford is experiencing many such reunions, alcohol lubricating awkward homecomings and community gatherings. The most oppressive of these are the mandatory holiday parties hosted by the town’s leading industrialist Dicky Carmichael, Gilbert’s employer. With the Carmichael estate backing onto the Aldridge property, the attractive and popular Tamsin Carmichael and her precocious kid sister Kit are Lewis’s playmates, along with a gaggle of neighbourhood boys who (like Lewis) are fascinated by Tamsin. The children play thrilling and cruel games, mirroring the adults’ inebriated dysfunction.
Though pleased to be reunited with Elizabeth, Gilbert is appalled by the coddling his son has received in his absence. No longer permitted to skip church for picnics by the river, Elizabeth and Lewis are steered back under the ever-judgmental gaze of Waterford society. Lewis continues to flourish, a naturally capable golden child. But iconoclastic Elizabeth, disappointed by Gilbert’s insistence on conformity, seeks refuge in the bottle.
Then a sunny riverside picnic ends with Elizabeth dead and ten-year-old Lewis the only witness. A shattered Gilbert is incapable of providing comfort to his young son and the community of Waterford turns away from the traumatized child, now rendered a pariah by tragedy. Lewis is sent to boarding school, summoned home only for holidays. Gilbert remarries five months later to Alice, a compliant beauty who is not up to the task of parenting a damaged child.
Years pass and Lewis, now a troubled teenager, is lost in dangerous and self-harming behaviours. When an incident with a local bully causes Lewis to be even further estranged from the community, Gilbert and Alice stand idly by as Lewis is tormented by the tyrannical Dicky. Enraged, Lewis commits a shocking crime against the whole of Waterford and is sent to prison.
Two years later, upon his shamed return, the town continues to treat Lewis as an outcast. Only Tamsin’s little sister Kit, now a young woman, sees in him the golden boy he once was. She had become infatuated with Lewis years earlier when he had casually protected her from bullies and broken bicycle chains. But she now faces a much darker and more dangerous sort of bullying at the hands of her father. It is up to Lewis once again to rescue her, redeeming himself through tremendous courage and terrible sacrifice. And perhaps Kit holds the power to rescue him, too.
Winner of the Costa First Novel Award and a finalist for the prestigious Orange Prize, Sadie Jones’s The Outcast introduces us to a clear and brave new voice in British fiction. The novel is a clarion call to us all, daring us to stand up to the bullies of our world, in whatever form they may take and — above all else — to love our children.
From the Hardcover edition.