Staid sensibilities of the muddle
IF any part of recent English culture, outside of football hooliganism, has gained notoriety it’s the middle and upper- class etiquette of the 1950s: a cloistered society turned bitter by war and colonial decline, rigorously anti- modern and governed by unspoken codes of conduct, which shunned public displays of emotion in favour of a stiff upper lip.
The British literary critic Al Alvarez described the period as suffering from a ‘‘ disease of gentility’’. Harold Pinter summed up the rottenness and social paranoia of the times in plays such as The Hothouse , written in 1958.
England has now, apart from a few enclaves of rural senility, moved beyond colonial arrogance, through post- imperial diffidence to become simply cosmopolitan. There was a time, though, when these attitudes thrived, and Sadie Jones’s talented debut The Outcast has revisited that culture at its final apogee, as it teeters on the brink of the ’ 60s and inevitable destruction.
Lewis Aldridge is growing up in a wealthy town outside London. World War II and a family tragedy have left the Aldridges troubled, although they maintain a front of peaceful affluence. Lewis’s resentment towards his father and stepmother becomes volatile as the guilt and grief
The Outcast By Sadie Jones Chatto & Windus, 347pp, $ 45
planted in him as a young boy are ignored and grow mutant, until incidences of violence and self- harm start to punctuate summer parties and local parish masses.
Lewis’s numerous breakdowns are only part of the Aldridges’ family misery though; mostly they stew away in quiet unhappiness, staring out of windows and into mirrors. Lewis’s stepmother Alice is particularly prone to episodes of lukewarm crisis: ‘‘ She thought that she was about halfway through her life. It seemed a very long time to have to wait. She got up and crossed the room and put on her watch.’’
Here is a very subtle and artful evocation of a brooding era of transition, carefully laced through with the flavour of change: rock music, Americanness and emerging British black culture. Instead of looking to their parents for guidance and sanity, many of the town’s children adopt modern expressions of freedom as their aspirations. Kit, a neighbour of Lewis’s who has a crush on him and suffers under the tempers of her father, finds her only solace in music, listening religiously to Fats Domino and Bill Haley. Lewis escapes the town by running off to London to visit Soho’s nightclubs and listen to jazz.
Primarily this is a story about children, and Jones’s virtuosic use of reduced colour palettes creates moods of nostalgia, which at times feel cinematic when you think of recent examples of the technique in films such as Cate Shortland’s Somersault , with its pervasive use of reds. One particularly striking scene evokes the supernatural aura the town’s chief belle projects on Lewis: ‘‘ The sun was shining down on Tamsin’s hair as she walked, not all the time, but when it could find its way through the leaves and, when it did, it made her glow. All of her skin seemed to be golden, as if being blonde had burnished her all over. The colours of her went together now.’’
It feels like a physical untruth, yet is strikingly recognisable. Jones’s pared- back language artfully captures these basic and visceral emotions of youth, and particularly the logic of Lewis’s withdrawal and increasing antisocial behaviour: ‘‘ Joining in wasn’t something he’d ever learned, it had just happened and now it had just stopped happening. The others in the
swimming pool played diving games and bombing games and their shouts and splashing weren’t anything he wanted.’’
As Lewis and the other village children grow older, Jones describes the adoption of their parents’ upper- middle class hypocrisy. Those who resist taking on board the twisted spirit of the times are ostracised, bashed and abused.
Comparisons to Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day are sure to run thick and fast here, although Ishiguro’s book was more a meditative dissection of that particular culture — its merits, detriment and decline — whereas here, the prevalent society seems rotten almost to its core: ‘‘ Everybody was in a broken, bad world that fitted them just right.’’
The civility and politeness of the town masks violence, psychological disrepair and a collection of nasty assumptions about humanity, and at some point the balance tips. This is a softly spoken, rich debut, about a society on the brink of outgrowing its tired totems and rules, not through drum beating or soapbox rhetoric, but as the natural course of human emotion overflowing the constraints of a waning, irrelevant order. Daniel Stacey is a magazine editor, writer and literary critic based in London.