Outsiders in Fiction

My recent reading has included several novels that show us the world of the isolate, the outsider. Not just young women trying to make their way in the teeth of family and social opposition, but people who just are not fitting in.

I guess they appeal to readers, because reading is so often an isolated activity, and writers too for the same reason. But more than that. Fiction about outsiders makes us see the world we inhabit from the outside. It is not always a comforting vision.

Here are five works of fiction that do this rather well:

  1. Free Day by Ines Cagnati 
  2. Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini
  3. Nagasaki by Eric Faye
  4. Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins
  5. Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

I expect you can think of books to add to this list.

Free Day by Ines Cagnati 

Translated from the French by Liesl Schilling, who also writes the Introduction.

The outsider in this novella is a double outsider: her family are Italian immigrants in France, and she has a life apart from her family. Galla is 14 years old, living in rural France in the 1950s. She attends the Catholic girls’ school but at great cost. Neither of her parents wanted her to go – she is a boarder – because she is useful on the farm. At school the girls and the teachers look down on her for her poverty, except Fanny, who may be imaginary.

The novella follows Galla on a trip home on an unanticipated day off. She rides the 20 or so miles on an old unreliable bike. It is winter and she arrives as night falls. The farmhouse is locked and she is unable to attract the attention of her mother to let her in. She spends the night with the dog Daisy and her puppy. In the morning she returns to school, through the frost, falling from time to time on black ice. Her reception when she arrives at school is surprisingly warm, and she falls into bed. In the morning it becomes apparent that Galla must return to the farm. We know that she will have to take on the burdens of her mother.

Free Day by Ines Cagnati, first published as Le Jour de congé in 1973. English version issued by nyrb in 2019. 143pp

Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini


Translated from the Italian by J Ockenden

This novella is about an old man who lives alone in the Alps, beginning to lose his memory, but staunchly a loner. He is befriended by a dog, but rejects the overtures of the local ranger. During the winter the man and dog endure hardship as they live out the cold and empty months, until they find a foot in the snow. Fearing it is the ranger the man seeks to hide it. It is bleak, funny and tragic.

Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini, first published in 2015 and the English version by Peirene in 2019. 174 pp

Nagasaki byEric Faye (2012)

Translated from the French by Emily Boyce.

This novella features two outsiders. Based on a real event, this is the story of a woman who hides in a solitary man’s house in Nagasaki in Japan. He finds her after several months, because she had been stealing from his fridge. The story is about the man’s isolation and his shock at being invaded in his home. The women tells her story in a letter of apology. Another bleak novella. 

Nagasaki by Eric Faye, first published in 2012, and the English version by Gallic in 2014. 109pp

Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins

The original Harriet

Another story of isolation based on the historical events of the Penge murder in 1877. The story follows the fortunes of those involved with Harriet, simple but well-off, who is married for her money and then four adults are involved in starving her to death. The motivation of the quartet is well described, believable that they more or less fell into it, each from their own twisted selfishness. That people are capable of such cruelty, especially to one ‘with learning difficulties’ – as we would say – is shocking.

Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins was first published in 1934. It was re-issued by Persephone Books in 2012. 320pp

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2016.

This is a dark tale, well-told. Eileen is the name of the narrator, who is in her early 20s living in Xville, in 1964. Her mother has died, her father is a drunk. Eileen works in a lowly admin job in the local prison for young offenders, and hates her life, herself, her father, her surroundings and her prospects. Eileen is aware that she lives in a bubble and that far from being despised by everyone, she is not noticed.

She becomes involved with sophisticated Rebecca who gets a job at the prison and then with the case of a boy who has killed his father. The two women decide to take action against his mother who they believe is also complicit. Eileen finally escapes Xville but one feels that in the immediate future her actions are not likely to be any better judged.

It is surprising and revulsion-inducing throughout, but in the end its hard to know who is the victim and who the wrong doer. That’s life.

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh (2016) Vintage 260pp For a full review see my post from Dec 2016

And of course, the archetypal outsider is by the French writer, Albert Camus: L’Etranger. Published in 1942, a French Algerian young man shoots another man on the beach, and appears indifferent to the consequences of the murder.

Over to youCan you add to the list of outsiders in fiction with any recommended reads?


Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, translation

12 Responses to Outsiders in Fiction

  1. I have some pretty obvious ones: the mother from Bord de mer by Veronique Olmi – who obviously believes the whole world is against her; The Heart is Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers (well, all of her novels and stories really are about outsiders); Patrick Süskind’s Perfume (even before he becomes murderous). Hmmm, I seem to be really drawn to these stories about outsiders…

    • Caroline

      I found Bord de Mer by Veroique Olmi too difficult to contemplate once I had read it. I have not read yourt other suggestions, but you obviously know lots about this theme. Thanks for joining in.

  2. Nagasaki is on the TBR – thank you for reminding me!
    And an argument could be made for the fact that all books about women are books about outsiders…

    • Caroline

      I see your point about books about women. But some focus on the women being outsiders.
      It is a huge topic as so many writers are outsiders themselves.
      Thanks for this Caroline

  3. Marianne Coleman

    Me too! Something about individuals who turn to books rather than other more social activities?

    I just read The Reader on the 6.27, by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent (Author), Ros Schwartz (Translator). A strange little book about a definite outsider. Of course there was also Eleanor Oliphant is Perfectly Fine – a big hit recently, but perhaps that is because of her becoming less of an outsider.

    • Caroline

      You should see what Kaggsy59 thinks about the Reader on 6.27 on her blog. I’m not sure I want to read it myself. And you are right about Eleanor Oliphant, and perhaps that was the attraction of that book for so many readers, an outsider who came in.
      See you soon

  4. I think some of Anita Brookner’s characters would fit into ‘the outsider’ category – people who seem to hover on the edge of things rather than taking centre stage, as it were …

    • Caroline

      Yes that’s true. She writes characters who are observers of themselves, but who live lives outside the mainstream. Lovely fiction by her.
      Thanks for this contribution too

  5. Yes, Anita Brookner definitely spring to mind, as does Shirley Jackson – We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a terrific example of how society’s suspicions of outsiders can fester and spiral out of control. Several of Georges Simenon’s romans durs (or ‘hard’ psychological novels) feature outsiders, individuals on the fringes of society who struggle to integrate or ‘fit in’. The Krull House is an interesting one. First published in the late 1930s but still frighteningly relevant today.

    • Caroline

      I don’t know Shirley Jackson at all. And I havent read Simenon since i was a teenager. So thanks for adding these to my list of possible reads.

  6. There are loads of outsiders in Dickens. Magwitch in Great Expectations springs first to my mind

    • Caroline

      Ah thanks for this observation. I have not read a great deal of Dickens, but I can recognise what you say about the characters being outsiders.

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