An Outsider Inside by R J Samuel is the last book I read in 2017 and it also happens to be the very best book I read all year. It’s a drama with an intricate mystery at its centre and it left me breathless.
Jaya Dillon is an Irish-Indian lesbian activist who’s being pulled by both sides of the same-sex marriage debate in the weeks leading up to Ireland’s referendum. Never fully accepted as Irish or Indian, she’s always wanted to belong somewhere. Jaya found that acceptance within the lesbian community, although she doesn’t love that her compatriots are firmly voting no in the referendum. Previous relationships with bisexual women have also left a mark on her, and Jaya is more than happy to let anyone know all the negative things she has to say about them.
When Zara, Jaya’s mother, asks her to help clear out a house in Galway that was rented by an Indian couple, she comes across a manuscript that the wife, Lana, developed in a creative writing class. She takes the manuscript with her on a last-minute trip to France with Zara where she’s confronted by her worst nightmare—Chloe, Jaya’s bisexual ex-fiancee, who’s planning her wedding with a man.
Worlds collide when she realizes that the characters in Lana’s novel may not be entirely fictional and Jaya is drawn into the search for the missing Lana. Things get even more confusing when Jaya finds herself falling under Lana’s literary spell, and is attracted for the first time in her life to a man, the gay French-Algerian Ishmael, as well as his sister Isabella. Can Jaya unravel the mystery of what happened to Lana and make peace with her old feelings for Chloe?
Jaya is the main character in An Outsider Inside and we follow her through most of the book. She has strong opinions and many of them are informed by painful experiences that have led her to crave belonging. Her biphobia is so strong and off-putting that I almost put the book down. As a bisexual woman married to a man, I’ve heard some of Jaya’s opinions directed at me before, and reading them immediately put me on edge. I’m glad I stuck with the book, however, because Jaya experiences things, particularly in her attractions to and interactions with Chloe, Ishmael, Isabella, and Lana’s writings, that challenge her biphobia to its core, and I found it affirming to see her shift in perspective.
There are many other characters in this book and all of them are developed masterfully by Samuel, including those in Lana’s novel. Zara is a beautiful soul, willing to march for anyone’s cause and throw the full weight of her privilege as a white woman to help others get rights they should already have. Chloe is bright and warm, looking for the longterm stability she’s always needed, and for someone to love her as fully as she deserves. Ishmael is quiet, sweet, and kind, even as he, Isabella, and the others at the holiday rental property they run are clearly hiding something from Jaya, Zara, and Chloe. Everyone has motivations that are complex and aren’t clear at first glance, which helps drive the mystery at the heart of the story.
The Writing Style
I cannot say enough good about how well An Outsider Inside is written. The language is often lyrical and always compelling, and Samuel’s narrative techniques held me on the edge of my seat. Most of the book shifts between Jaya’s experiences in the present, which is told from her perspective in the first person, Lana’s novel, and one other character’s perspective in the past and occasionally the present (no, I won’t say who because I don’t want to spoil the experience); both the novel and that other character’s perspective are told in the third person. These shifts add more questions than answers for most of the book, driving everything to an enthralling end that kept me up until 2 a.m. to finish it (let’s be honest, once I hit chapter 22, there was no way I was going to put it down—you’ll know what I mean when you read it). There’s no way I worked out all of the nuances on my first reading and I’m looking forward to reading it again so I can pull all the little pieces apart.
Oh goodness, everything? The character work is amazing, the mystery is so good, the writing itself is beautiful, the structure is brilliant, and the plotting and pacing are perfect. I also appreciated seeing the author tackle difficult issues like biphobia in the lesbian community, racism and homophobia in other communities, and domestic violence. This is a book that will be sure to leave you thinking about it for long after you’ve finished.
Like I mentioned in the last section, the book deals with some very tough themes including domestic violence, which we see on the page. It is not gratuitous, but it may be difficult to read at times.
An Outsider Inside is one of the best lesbian books that came out in 2017, and possibly just one of the best releases of the year in general. Its story and characters will challenge and teach you, even as its mystery keeps you guessing at what’s happening. I can’t believe this is the first book I’ve ever read by Samuel and it surely won’t be the last. I cannot recommend An Outsider Inside enough and hope everyone will pick up this book.
Excerpt from An Outsider Inside by R J Samuel
“Was that tough? Growing up brown in a white city?”
Ishmael nodded. “Probably not as bad as in rural Ireland. We had each other and other families. Not as many as now, but enough to have a community, to take over some arrondissements.” He lifts an eyebrow. “I can’t imagine what the experience was for you. I would say Ireland in, what, the seventies, was not a very multicultural place?”
“It wasn’t. I was the only one with any brown, heck, any colour. My activism around lesbian issues is affected by my experience growing up in a place that saw me as an outsider. We are treated as outsiders, even when on the inside we’re as much insiders.” I lean forward. “I try and make lesbians aware they sometimes use the same judgements on women of colour as straight people do about them, we’re so busy building communities for our safety, but we build walls at the same time, separating us further into outsiders and insiders.”
Ishmael sips at his rosé. “And lesbians build walls against bisexuals too. Chloe experienced that.”
The grey plastic chair wobbles on the uneven paving when I sit back. “Not the same.”
His mouth quirks in a sad smile. “Isn’t it?”
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- ISBN number: 9781548247225
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Note: I received a free review copy of An Outsider Inside by R J Samuel. No money was exchanged for this review. I will always review books as honestly as possible and on occasion I refuse to review books.
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