Staid sen­si­bil­i­ties of the mud­dle

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Daniel Stacey

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.

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