Monday, July 9, 2018

Outcast by Rosemary Sutcliff; read by Johanna Ward (1955, 2008)

There is a scene towards the end of the book Outcast where a great hurricane changes the course of river off the coast of Roman Britain.  The main character Beric, an outcast from Celtic tribe and formerly a Roman slave, is surveying the storm damage, the roofless huts and uprooted trees,  when he realizes "with a queer feeling of unbelief that the nearest arm of the river was not where he had expected it to be, but had cut a new course for itself..."  A local man nearby notices Beric astonishment, and says "We shall have easier launching  for the fishing now - until in another year there comes another storm, and maybe the river goes elsewhere."  He then "nodded to Beric, and trudged on, leaning into the wind."

That's certainly a metaphor for Beric's life, and life in general, and the theme of this book.  Beric is first rescued from a shipwreck by the Dumnonii, a Celtic tribe who lived in Devon and Cornwall.  He's raised by them until he is a young man, but it cast out fro being a foreigner.  He is then shanghaied (or whatever the Roman equivalent of that word would have been, as the Chinese city was just a fishing village during this time period) by slavers, and spends several years in Rome as the house slave of a rich Roman.  He falls afoul of the Roman's son, and ends up being a galley slave, rowing and becoming hard and bitter, before eventually being rescued by a kindly Roman commander who he had previously run across in Rome.

Beric's life flowed toward the sea, sometimes smoothly, other times buffeted by winds, and the only constant was change.  Sutcliff seems to be saying that if you only wait long enough, the river course will change.  The cause may be dramatic and deadly and destructive, but peace can come out of that.  But always waiting in the future are more storms.  All we can do is trudge on and lean into the wind.

I don't know whether this is beautiful or sad, or both.  It's certainly a moving passage and idea, and I liked it.

The book - for some reason I can't quite place - reminded me of Citizen of the Galaxy, a Heinlein juvenile I listened to about a year ago. Something about the plot structure (they both jumped from place to place in few pages) and the sort of matter of fact narrative (perhaps a "juvenile" style from the 1950s; both were written at around the same time).  It certainly wasn't the narrators:  Johanna Ward was quite good. 

I liked this overall, and I'd certainly listen to - and maybe even read! - another Rosemary Sutcliff novel. 

OutcastOutcast by Rosemary Sutcliff
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A strong audio performance by Johanna Ward overcomes a flat(tish) narrative that jumps from place to place rather quickly. Rosemary Sutcliff certainly brings Roman Britain to startling life. Her scenes of life on a Roman galley as a rowing slave are both brutal; the relationships that Beric, the outcast, develops over his young life are touching - particularly the tragic bromance he develops with his rowing mate, a fellow slave named Jason. There is almost too much going on in such a short book, and my attention was drawn away occasionally. But Sutcliff - with Johann Ward's help - draws you back into the story and keeps you wanting to read (or listen) on.

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