No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, March 04, 2006

#15: Outcast -- Rosemary Sutcliff

Somehow I missed this until now, despite having been a Sutcliff fan for thirty years or more (I remember avidly rereading The Lantern Bearers at primary school) and actually owning a copy of the book for some time. I suspect our local libraries didn't have a copy; or perhaps I was put off, as with Warrior Scarlet, because of the non-Roman setting. Though it is a Roman novel, even if Beric is more Tribe than Rome.

I don't think it's one of Sutcliff's stronger books. The plot is a catalogue of catastrophes: shipwreck, bad harvests, casting-out, press-gang, slavery, frying-pan to fire, highway robbery, the galleys, Romney Marsh. There isn't much room for happiness in Beric's life, though even at the nadir of his tale he's capable of loving another, and avenging his friend in a grand, dramatic and ultimately doomed fashion. Only luck, and the tides in the Channel, preserve him and carry him to somewhere that he can find a place for himself, a home, a sense of belonging. (A recurring theme in Sutcliff's novels, but it feels slightly artificial here, as though it's hammered home with one blow too many.)

There are a couple of loose ends, and a couple of plot threads that could have done with some expansion. At least one, the mutual regard between Beric and his employer's daughter, may be a case of Sutcliff writing for an older audience she trusts to read between the lines. We're told much more about the strength of the bond than is ever actually shown.

But I did like the book very much. Every time I read a new Sutcliff novel (a rare pleasure, these days, but there are actually quite a few I've missed) I am struck by the quality of her descriptive writing; every time I reread a Sutcliff novel, I'm struck by descriptive passages so familiar that I realise I've been emulating her style!

He watched the water swinging in, greening as it shallowed, laced and curdled and frilled with foam, with a clap and a delicate curl-back onto itself as it met the flat surface of a rock, creaming up in shades of white; then draining out again with a shrill hush over the shingle.

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