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Review - An Outsider Inside, by R J Samuel

A lesbian literary mystery that keeps the twists coming.


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Some stories crawl under your skin, diving deeper until you can’t separate yourself from them. Reading that kind of book is like throwing down a time marker, because who you were before is not who you are when you’ve finished it. And even when you try to explain to someone why it’s so important to you, you may not be able to access the right words because you’re trying to describe an experience, which is so much more than a plot or set of characters. And yet, try you must because all you want is for someone else to love the book as much as you do. I’ve had the pleasure of reading a few novels like that in the last few years—Backcast by Ann McMan and Rainbow Gap by Lee Lynch among them—and An Outsider Inside by R J Samuel is the latest.

 

Jaya Dillon is an Indian-Irish lesbian activist living in Dublin and dating the police officer who saved her after Jaya was stabbed by a neo-Nazi at a Pride rally. The country is gearing up for a referendum on same-sex marriage and she finds herself torn between both sides of the vote. As much as she wants to vote “yes,” she also feels loyalty to the local lesbian activist community who are staunchly against marriage, since they gave her the acceptance she’d always craved and never got from Indians or Irish people. Happily for Jaya, these activists are also more than happy to join her in trash talking bisexual women, their invective about fickleness and denial a balm for the wounds she still carries from past relationships with bi women, including (and perhaps especially) her ex-fiancee Chloe.

 

During a visit with her mother, Zara, in Galway, Jaya helps clear out a house that had been rented by an Indian couple, Lana and David. It’s there that she finds their wedding photo and a manuscript that Lana had developed in a creative writing class. When Zara talks her into a last-minute trip to France, Jaya brings the manuscript, expecting some downtime to read and relax. Jaya is instead blindsided in the French countryside with Chloe, who’s there to plan her wedding to a man with Zara’s help.

 

As frustrated as Jaya is with Zara and Chloe, she also finds herself drawn to Ishmael and Isabella, an Algerian brother and sister who run the holiday rental property where the three women are staying. Jaya is confused when she finds herself attracted to both siblings, especially as she’s always identified as a lesbian and Ishmael is a gay man in a committed relationship. Things get even more confusing as she begins reading Lana’s manuscript, falling for the woman Jaya’s never met except through her prose, only to realize that very little of the tragic tale is actually fiction. Jaya’s determined to find out what happened to Lana, even as she battles her feelings for Chloe, Ishmael, and Isabella.

 

An Outsider Inside is a masterfully twisty book. Just when you think you know exactly what is going on, a layer is peeled away, revealing even more of the mystery of Lana and what happened to her. Its structure lends itself beautifully to this technique because we’re bounced between Jaya telling her story in the first person in the present timeline, chapters of Lana’s manuscript, and one other character’s perspective in the past at various points as well as in the present. The threads are so intricately woven together that they create a perfect, compelling narrative that is difficult to put down. R J Samuel’s writing style is also brilliant—it’s often lyrical and sometimes gripping, and always serves the story in the right ways at the right times to make it an engrossing experience.

 

When it comes to the themes of An Outsider Inside, the author explores some seriously tough stuff. As an Indian-Irish person, Jaya has experienced racism, and as a lesbian she’s experienced homophobia, with her stabbing being literally the first we see of Jaya. And yet, despite having experienced far more than her share of prejudice, she’s incredibly biphobic for much of the book. Think of all of the worst stereotypes you’ve heard about bisexual people and you’ll see them spewed or thought by Jaya or one of her activist friends. As a bisexual woman, I almost stopped reading the book because I’ve heard some of those same terrible things too, and I’m so glad I didn’t. Jaya’s bigotry is challenged to its core by her experiences in France and she undergoes a true transformation that’s admirable and worth the cost of the book alone. Domestic violence and narcissism are also explored in scenes that may be difficult to read, but are never gratuitous.

 

2017 was a fabulous year for lesbian fiction, and An Outsider Inside is a great example of how authors are pushing boundaries in the genre, releasing rich stories that aren’t all romance (even as we continue to need and appreciate all the excellent romance that’s coming out too!). By delivering a thrilling mystery, Jaya’s metamorphosis, a beautiful love story, and a bold story structure all in one exquisite book, R J Samuel has revealed herself as a master plate spinner and an author to keep an eye on. If you haven’t read it, be sure to pick up An Outsider Inside because this book will make you look for our own biases and will linger long after you’ve finished it.

 

Tara Scott is a regular reviewer at The Lesbian Review and you can hear her talk about lesbian fiction on her podcast Les Do Books.

 

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