Journeys, enthralling narratives and recent success

A chat with Sadie Jones, author of the award-winning novel, The Outcast.

Sadie Jones is one of Britain’s most exciting literary talents. Her novel, The Outcast, released in July 2008 has been extremely well received with several awards, accolades and even 15 translations. This is not a surprise; The Outcast is refreshing and captivating, proving that Jones is an astonishing new voice on the literary scene, and a publishing sensation.

Jones was born in London in 1968. She grew up in a creative environment: her father is the Jamaican poet and screenwriter, Evan Jones, and her mother was an actress. As her friends took up their various university places, Jones worked in a variety of jobs, including video production, temping and as a waitress. She says, “I didn’t go to university, so there was the question of what was I going to do with my life, and the obvious thing was to take off travelling for a bit. I was always writing while that was happening and then I ended up in Paris teaching English. I was there for a year and it was amazing. I wrote my first screenplay when I lived there. I sent it off to an agent in London who took me on. So, I started writing professionally very young. It was great, I was 22, but then it went downhill from there. I got a couple of jobs. The first thing was an original TV series that never got made, and then a few other things that never got made, and suddenly I was an unemployed screenwriter that wasn’t 22 anymore. It never really took off, but it never occurred to me to write prose. I didn’t start doing that until I wrote The Outcast. I was a dramatist, I may have been intimidated by writing prose, but a novel has a different life to it. You have to have such a driving compulsion to do it. I never felt that I had that.” Amazingly if took 15 years for Jones to develop her craft to include prose.

The Outcast was originally a film script, but for Jones the story did not feel complete. She enthuses, “Looking back at it, being an unemployed writer is a perfect way to teach yourself how to tell a narrative. You’re in a vacuum. I started The Outcast as a film script, but the story never felt told. Lewis’s childhood unfolded in my mind, and there was nowhere to put it. To stay sane, I thought, I will turn this into a novel. It was very liberating to start writing prose, although a bit alarming because there are no boundaries. The structure was terrifying, that’s always the case in any form, but I had my voice. I wasn’t experimenting with style; it was choiceless in terms of the way I wrote it because I could only do it as truthfully as I could, and that’s the way it came out.” That’s exactly what Jones did, and to say the least, The Outcast has real appeal. The protagonist, Lewis, is at times the most despicable character, but as a reader, you cannot escape the fact that he is broken, and that sensation of disdain turns into a desire for him to be accepted by his community and loved.

In the tradition of Ian McEwan’s Atonement and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, The Outcast tells individual narratives of people that appear seemingly normal, however their emotional repression and stoic behaviour unfolds, as communication breaks down and the social norms are deconstructed. Jones says, “The Outcast started out as a headline story, the loveable outsider, influenced by 1950s cinema — the young man locked out of things. When I began to look more deeply into it, there was much more truth and subtlety to it.”

The Outcast begins in 1957 in a middle-class town in the South of England. Lewis Aldridge is 19-years-old and travelling back to his home after a two-year stint in prison. His return ignites the implosion, not just of his family, but also of the whole community. Jones says, “When I began to build Lewis, I started thinking, why would anyone turn away from a child? Who could be essentially blameless, but loathed? What would that dynamic have to consist of? It became interesting to me, because it was about people being frightened of grief and damage. I began to think about what his damage would be and once I did that and I thought about who he was and how his problems manifested, he became so real to me.”

As the novel unfolds, 10 years earlier, his father’s homecoming casts a different shape. The war is over and Gilbert has recently been discharged. He easily reverts back to suburban life — cocktails at six-thirty, church on Sundays, formal parties — but his wife and young son resist the stifling routine. Lewis and his mother escape to the woods for picnics, just as they did when Gilbert was away at war. Nobody is surprised that Gilbert’s wife defies convention, but they are all shocked when, after one of their outings, Lewis comes back alone. This is the turning point for Lewis, the cause of his loneliness, confusion and anger.

As the novel moves back through the trauma and its aftermath, we see Lewis change from a quiet, happy boy, beloved by his mother but largely ignored by his judgemental father, into a young man who, in his loneliness and alienation, turns to self-harm and alcohol abuse. However, Lewis is not an attention-seeker; it is not his ploy to become noticed, rather his way dealing with emotional pain. He does have a conscience, and as a reader you cannot help but empathise with him. Jones comments, “I knew what I was doing by making him so frustrating. I am a serious planner. The big question was the chronology, how was I going to tell it, and easily drop back into the past? I worked out the 19-year-old part very early on. All the other characters were very organic and just grew in my mind.”

Kid-sister of a childhood playmate, Kit Carmichael, has always loved Lewis. She understands more than most, not least from what she has been dealt by her own father’s hand. Lewis’s grief and burgeoning rage are all too plain, and she makes a private vow to help. But in her attempts to set them both free, she fails to predict the painful and horrifying secrets that come to light about the relationship between Lewis and his stepmother, Alice. Jones says, “Kit finding out about Alice is the loss of her innocence. That is the grief that she feels, she thinks it’s because she is losing Lewis, but actually it’s the loss of her naivety. Kit is so resilient, she’s got her head down just trying to manage.”

The Outcast is a wonderful debut novel. It has so much passion and emotion, as a reader you become involved with the characters. Sadie Jones is highly in demand at the moment with a world tour underway. Excitingly, she is currently halfway through her next novel. Jones is an ambitious woman who loves working, she says, “If I’m not working, I get very miserable, because The Outcast is so exciting, it’s essential to have work to go to, otherwise I wouldn’t know who I was. It keeps me centred.”

The Outcast is out now on Vintage available from all good bookshops.

Cherie Federico