The Outsider by Emily Hourican: A tense and compulsive summer psychological thriller
The titular outsider of Emily Hourican's fourth novel and fifth book is a shape-shifting creature.
At first glance the outsider could be Sarah - the shy pre-teen who befriends the boisterous, Jamie while on holiday in Portugal and immediately inserts herself into her new friend's vivacious, sprawling family. As the years pass, a friendship of obligation continues between the two girls and their respective families become increasingly entwined. Hourican skilfully switches viewpoints to build a rich portrait of the ensemble cast - from successful bon vivant Simon O'Reilly and his wife the bohemian, independent Maeve with their troop of kids; to Sarah's parents, the watchful and eager social climbers Paul and Miriam.
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Dublin parties give way to long summers in Kerry and the outsider status shifts between the players like a parasite seeking a host. At times, Sarah's family are isolated, marked different initially by their lack of money and then by their declasse nouveau riche ways, after they're thrust upwardly mobile by the Celtic Tiger and thanks to deals brokered by Simon. At other times, the outsider standing passes among the children as they navigate the murky teenage years of constantly shifting alliances and sibling rivalry.
While this theme of isolation touches on each of the characters, Sarah above all remains the interloper, a Mr Ripley unsettlingly reincarnated in the body of a diffident teenage girl. Her desperation to belong ultimately wreaks havoc on the family she so desperately aspires to join.
Newly anointed by their sudden wealth, Paul and Miriam plunge into the heady scene of insouciant excess without pausing for breath. Money rings change among the group with spoilt entitlement rampant among the children while parties and mindless accumulation dwarf the parents' regard for anything of more substance. A trip to a remote unspoilt island becomes a prospecting excursion with casual chat about installing a luxury home there - "you'd need a helipad" - taking precedent over any enjoyment of the wild beauty or even simply in each other's company.
The Outsider casts a cold eye on the all-too-recent epidemic that saw people (and developments) rise from nothing and ascend to precarious financial triumph - built on little more than hypothetical foundations and arrogance. Hourican dissects the mores of the Tiger years with barbed precision: Idle Miriam, for example, finds herself with "hours to fill every day, so that she needed to find social engagements and then make them - or try to make them - something others might want… when had she begun to look for a sense of her worth in the things she had that others didn't?" Hourican's words will cut close to the bone for many.
Both the adults and the adolescents appear to be on the precipice of disaster and, fuelled by booze and drugs, there's increasing tension as the plot races to a devastating and shocking conclusion.
Without spoilers there is little else I can say beyond Hourican has done it again. The Outsider is a brilliant blend of sweeping, satisfying family drama with a tense undercurrent of psychological thriller that hooks on and doesn't let go until she delivers her last devastating page.