Chapter One. We’re in a Grammar School classroom of 17-year-olds, 30 years on from our present. Most young people in this world ‘graduate’ at 13, and if they get work at all it will be in a job so punishing that their bodies, and their minds, are worn out by their early 20s. The students in that classroom may be an elite, but their reading, their viewing, their words, their appearance down to the length of their hair – all are dictated and monitored by the Protectorate. The classroom is being routinely searched by a new Green Jacket (aka Filth-Finder) a monster who punches one of Gabriel’s friends, June, in the stomach for what he sees as a moment’s lack of due respect. Gabe is anxious; he’s hiding a disc of a banned film made way back in more liberal times – our times, in fact – and he needs to get rid of it before the constable reaches his desk. If the disc is found, Gabe will end up in a Re-Purification camp for degenerates.
Gabe’s England may well remind readers of Orwell’s 1984. It’s a waste land. Deserted cities lie in ruins, there’s poverty, sickness (and no medicines), astronomic inflation and food rationing. Only those who serve the Protectorate prosper – their reward for rescuing the nation from decadence at the time of The Outrage. Within this political context, William Hussey’s sustained focus is on the suppression of sexual freedom. In his Afterword, he regrets his own childhood, growing up gay in the 80s and 90s, ‘my life consumed with needless misery and self-loathing’. The Outrage is his passionate contribution to the ongoing fight: ‘We stand with all LGBTQ+ people who live under oppressive regimes. We call for their liberation and while doing so, we must be vigilant about the fragility of those rights we have won.’
His central characters – all classmates of Gabe – form the Rebels, a neatly representative group in that they comprise a lesbian couple, a hetero couple, and Gabe and Eric, a newcomer to the school. Their relationship develops throughout the novel, despite Eric’s father’s position as a chief inspector at Degenerate Investigations. Then there’s Albert, who stands somewhat apart struggling, we learn, with a decision to transgender.
Gabe tells the story, with an energy which, he knows, reflects the personality of his father when he was Gabe’s age; ‘Sensitive, reckless and just a bit too hot-headed for my own good’. His narrative is charged with excitement, violence, surprise, betrayal, deception, incarceration, escape. There’s hope and despair – and always the shadow of discovery and retribution. The book’s Trigger Warning (homophobia, ethnic cleansing, self-harm and more) is deserved.
There is a difficult tension in the novel. The excitements and pace of an absorbing thriller are tempered by Hussey’s message about sexual oppression. So when the Rebels have been watching old movies (readers will recognise the titles) Gabe has discovered hidden in an abandoned library, they talk about our own age with its freedoms they can hardly credit. After they have viewed Disclosure, they speak of what they have seen in well-organised arguments, one developing from another. Their dialogue reads like a considered didactic presentation, rather than the exploratory words of bright 17-year-olds – or adults, for that matter – discovering what they think through what they see they have said.
Ironically, in such passages, Hussey’s message risks being at its least convincing. I’m unsure also of his repeated narrative technique in leaving readers cliff-hanging at a frustratingly exciting moment in the present adventure, asking us to backtrack – again – to learn more of the growing love between Eric and Gabe during the preceding months. And then there’s the ending in which Gabe and Albert make a discovery which they believe will rapidly bring down the Protectorate. Established fascist regimes are surely too clever in the real world to be so swiftly defeated. It only takes a few more enticing lies of the kind which brought them to power, especially if there’s no effective opposition with the resources to make use of such information.
Despite these reservations, The Outrage makes for provocative, page-turning reading. It’s no surprise that Usborne claims that ‘This is The Handmaid’s Tale for LGBTQ+ YA’.