Tuesday 22 October 2019

The Outsider: A fresh evocation of family drama amid Tiger-era envy and betrayal

Fiction: The Outsider

Emily Hourican

Hachette Ireland, paperback, 400 pages, €15.99

Brilliant but subtle: Emily Hourican. Photo: David Conachy
Brilliant but subtle: Emily Hourican. Photo: David Conachy
The Outsider

Ann Dunne

Author and journalist Emily Hourican's first book, an honest and humorous memoir entitled How To (Really) Be A Mother, was published in 2013 to great acclaim and was followed by three best-selling novels.

Her latest offering is a compelling and insightful psychological thriller which draws on some of the topics that featured in her previous novels: themes which mix the ordinary with the extraordinary, of being the outsider (White Villa), coming of age (The Privileged) and holidays abroad (The Blame Game) and hasty, poor decisions which have far-reaching consequences.

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Her exquisite evocation of childhood and adolescence, riven with a dark underbelly in The Outsider, will resonate with readers, much like Maria Hoey's similar portrayal in her 2018 novel On Bone Bridge. Hourican's central character is also a personification of the worst excesses of the Celtic Tiger years, including the erosion of long-held values and the sense of betrayal as the boom came to an end. It is 1998 and a timid middle-class family take their first tentative steps on a foreign holiday in the Algarve. Miriam and Paul are hovering parents to their only child, 12-year-old Sarah, who is extremely shy, awkward and friendless. In the glorious Portuguese sunshine, they feel self-conscious and out of their depth, in contrast to the O'Reilly family, who are staying at the same resort. The O'Reillys are a big, noisy, self-assured brood of seasoned travellers, effortlessly exuding wealth. Maeve and Simon are less hands-on parents with a more relaxed attitude to their four sporty children and friends.

The two families couldn't be more different but when the O'Reillys' daughter Jamie rescues Sarah from the bottom of the swimming pool, an unlikely friendship results between the girls and the two families, who happen to live close to each other back in Ireland.

Simon, a charismatic, wealthy property speculator, is full of bonhomie and loves a party. Soon Miriam, Paul and Sarah are included in their glamorous social circle. The kindly Maeve takes sensitive Sarah under her wing, while Simon generously helps Paul with financial investments. Dazzled by their wealthier friends, Miriam's family tries to emulate them. As their wealth grows, thanks to Simon's investment savvy - a larger house, holiday home, luxury cars, shopping trips and facelifts for Miriam - so too does their confidence, but no matter how much they have, they still want more. In Miriam's case, this includes her new friend Maeve's husband Simon, which doesn't endear either to the reader.

By the time the girls are 16, the families are holidaying together at the O'Reillys' house in Kerry. More friends have bought holiday homes in the area and there is lots of entertaining and drinking, with wives dressing to reflect their husbands' wealth. A new, self-assured Sarah emerges during a summer of love for the younger ones. Only Maeve pines for simpler times and sees signs of things to come. Over the next few chapters, Hourican skilfully shifts the reader's sympathies from one family to the other as the ultimate betrayal of friendship tears one family apart and leaves them devastated.

When the Celtic Tiger ends with the crash, bringing hardship to most of the protagonists and prompting a re-evaluation of their lives, an unexpected twist of revenge brings the book to a dramatic and chilling close. Hourican's brilliant but subtle depiction of the effects of changes in family fortunes on relationships and family dynamics is lightened with plenty of touches of humour.

Fresh and full of well-drawn characters, The Outsider is almost impossible to put down and will undoubtedly propel Hourican back to the bestsellers list this summer.

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