Book review: The Outsider - Arlene Hunt
Rural Ireland and the tragedy of being left on the outside
Thriller, The Outsider, Arlene Hunt, Portnoy, €9.99, pbk. Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350
Arlene Hunt is one of Ireland's most successful and prolific thriller writers. Her first book, Vicious Circle, a gritty and chilling evocation of the dangers facing streetwalkers in Dublin, was published by Hodder Headline in 2004 to rave reviews, and her subsequent tales, many featuring private detective duo Sarah Quigley and John Quigley, have copper-fastened her reputation as a writer of fast-paced, edgy crime novels.
In 2011, Arlene completely changed direction with the publication of The Chosen, a harrowing tale of a woman being stalked by a serial killer set in North Carolina and Tennessee. It was a huge success, becoming her bestselling title to date.
But The Outsider, her eighth novel and set in rural Ireland in the 1960s and 1970s, is as different as it could possibly be from everything she has previously published.
When 23-year-old Evelyn Finchley, the daughter of a staunchly Protestant district court judge, follows her heart and marries Jack Byrne, a local Catholic farmer, she is disowned by her family. Against the odds, and by dint of back-breaking work, she and Jack create a viable enterprise from a scrubby smallholding in Co Wicklow and start a family with the birth of their twins, Emma and Anthony.
From the outset it is clear that Emma is on a different developmental path from Anthony, who becomes a normal rambunctious toddler. Emma, however, cries a lot and is withdrawn and unresponsive. In today's world she would have been swiftly diagnosed as being in the autistic spectrum, but in early 1970s rural Ireland medical opinion is that the child will simply grow out of it, and Evelyn is told to stop being dramatic and prescribed Valium by her supercilious doctor.
As Emma and Jack grow, both are relentlessly bullied by many of their peers in the local school, but in her early teens Emma demands home education and develops a remarkable gift of empathy with horses, a skill that quickly turns into a successful career as a horse trainer.
However, Emma is still very much an outsider, has no guile, takes everything said to her quite literally, and generally avoids human interaction outside her family. But there is evil in the village the Byrnes live near; not evil in sense of the supernatural, but the evil that possesses the hearts of some cruel and thoughtless men.
When Emma, out exercising one of her horses in Crilly Woods, is shot at and she and her horse badly injured, Anthony takes it on himself to discover what happened to his sister. Almost inevitably, he makes a terrible mistake, the repercussions of which changes irrevocably the course of all their lives.
Even though there is a shocking crime at the centre The Outsider, it is not exactly a thriller or a detective novel, but more a wonderfully realised evocation of a tragedy within a tight-knit Irish rural community in an age where to be different was to be ostracised. Highly recommended.