Though Emma Byrne’s self-assessment that she is “normal for me” is accurate, her belief that she is simply “normal” couldn’t be more mistaken. Truth is, there is nothing normal about Emma, and there never has been.
From the time she and her twin brother, Anthony, were born to Evelyn and Jack Bryne, it was abundantly clear there was something different about Emma. She did not react to stimuli in the ways other babies did, nor did she grow out of her odd bahaviors as she aged.
Quite the opposite, she became even more entrenched in her highly particular mannerisms and routines, not caring at all about what conventional expectations, or her parents, demanded of her.
For those around her, Emma’s self-chosen isolation and taciturn nature make her difficult to deal with, and her occasional violent outbursts have earned her invitations to leave more than one school.
Emma’s unusual behavior has been hard for her parents to fathom, the situation made even more difficult by the everybody knows your business life they lead in their tight-knit rural community in 1970s Ireland. As far as her twin, Anthony, is concerned, Emma is a colossal embarrassment, one whose bizarre bahavior makes him a social pariah and target of bullying by association. He, of course, resents her deeply because of this.
Fortunately for all, there is one area where Emma’s uniqueness works to her advantage: she has an uncanny ability to commune with animals, especially horses. So gifted is she in her equine dealings, that at age 15 she officially leaves school to “study” at home, though in reality she ends up working full time for a friend of the family who trains and keeps horses. It’s a situation that finally appears to be working for everyone, until the fateful night a tragic occurrence sets in motion a chain of events that will irrevocably change the lives of everyone in their small Irish village.
In her latest offering, The Outsider, author Arlene Hunt takes what at first appears to be a relatively straightforward premise and weaves one of the deepest, most emotionally impactful stories I’ve ever had the pleasure and honor of reading. Though it is readily apparent to the reader that Emma falls on the relatively high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, given that the story starts in the early 1970s the people in Emma’s rural Irish village, including her family, have no idea what’s wrong with Emma—she’s just weird, disturbed. Her odd behavior is so striking, even from birth, that Emma’s Catholic father persuades her Protestant mother, Evelyn, to take infant Emma to a faith healer for what seems disturbingly like a half-assed exorcism. The event is so traumatic to Evelyn, she knee-jerks in the direction of refusing to (publicly) acknowledge anything is wrong with Emma, pushing her to do “normal” things even in situations where Emma is clearly uncomfortable and ill-equipped to function, let alone flourish.
It makes for awkward, painful family dynamics, especially as the twins age into their teen years. Their mother dutifully pursues a head in the sand approach, while their father becomes angrier and angrier over his inability to do anything to make Emma’s life easier. For his part, Anthony simply distances himself as much as possible, at first just from Emma, but eventually from the entire family. All the while, Emma moves through life with an earnest naivety that is both endearing in its purity and heartbreaking in its continual cause of strife for the Bryne family.
Writing a character with a disability of any kind is incredibly tricky business, and building a story around someone with autism is fraught with a particular set of perils. Because of well-intentioned, high-profile offerings such as the Dustin Hoffman film Rain Man, far too many people have a somewhat cartoony image of what it means to have autism, and don’t realize there is a broad spectrum of affectation, with people who suffer from autism spectrum disorder ranging in their symptoms from borderline catatonic to almost imperceptibly different from one who merely suffers from severe introversion. As The Outsider unfolds, it is abundantly clear Hunt did extensive research in order to get it right.
As written by Hunt, there is nothing cartoony about Emma, nor does Hunt ever go for cheap and easy sentimentality—she neither exalts Emma nor treats her with kid gloves, instead presenting her as a fully realized, highly complex young woman. By the time the lynchpin event of the story rolls around, the reader’s emotional investment in Emma is such that every wall she runs into, every torment she is made to suffer, every loss she endures cuts like a knife, for both Emma and the reader. And it’s at that point Hunt does something amazing—she takes what was already an emotional sledgehammer of a story and goes even deeper.
As events conspire to make a reluctant detective of Anthony, one who is less than adept at that, he sets out to unravel the mystery that sets the final act of the book in motion. In the process, he learns far more than he bargained for, both about what happened as well as about himself, and ends up making a decision from which there is no turning back. The Outsider is a remarkable dissection of life in a small, rural village, and the story richly delves into aspects of human behavior that are at times extremely unpleasant: bigotry, sexism, religious intolerance, callousness, casual cruelty. Through it all, Emma walks tall, truly representing a better angel of our human nature.
I read a lot of books, and am fortunate that I don’t come across many that I fail enjoy to one degree or another. It is extremely rare, however, that I read a book that truly touches me on an emotional level. I can count on one hand the books that have moved me to tears in my life, and The Outsider is one of them. It is a book I didn’t “enjoy” per se, but rather deeply appreciated, and I feel like I am a better person for having read it.
The Outsider is available from Portnoy Publishing (ISBN: 978-1909255067).