by Robert Williams)
Loners are intrinsically interesting; they stand outside, they are apart. Is it because they don't want to join in? Because they don't know how to? Or do they know something the rest of us don't? There is a power in their aloneness and almost always a story to be discovered.
Into the Trees
by Robert Williams
In my novel, Into the Trees, Raymond Farren lives alone in a caravan on the edge of a forest. He walks through the trees at night, having as little contact with people as possible. He is a shy, awkward man who isn't sure what to do with his hands or when to laugh at a joke. He is my favourite character in the book.
Despite the image of the brooding man on the edge of town, there is no such thing as a "typical" loner; they can be dangerous, caring, happy, desperate or none of these things. Here are some fascinating and varied loners from brilliant fiction.
1. Julius Winsome by Gerard Donovan
In this tense and wonderful eponymous novel Julius lives alone in a cabin deep in the Maine woods. "Even the silences here were mine," he tells us, but he has 3,282 books to keep him company and is happy enough until he finds Hobbes, his beloved dog, shot and killed at short range. A terrifying account of violent revenge follows and we see what can happen when there is nobody close by to put an arm around you and ask if you are alright.
2. Miss Havisham in Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Perhaps not a natural born loner but a woman driven to solitude through heartbreak, Miss Havisham stays inside her mansion, all the clocks stopped at twenty to nine, the minute she received the letter telling her she was jilted, always wearing the wedding dress she was never married in, the wedding cake left uneaten on the table. Adopting Estelle, initially to protect the young girl from heartbreak but then using her to inflict heartbreak on Pip, she exerts huge control over other people's lives. And all this without leaving the house.
3. Tom Oakley in Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian
A "good" loner, Tom is a widower in his 60s, living alone in a small village. Reclusive, terse and hostile to company, the rest of the village keep their distance. However, it is 1939 and he is required to take in an evacuee, William Beech. Reluctant and distant at first, Tom gradually understands how battered, physically and emotionally, William is and begins to help rebuild him. A book that we read at primary school and which cemented my love of reading. And a book that dares to have a happy ending, but will break your heart getting to it.
4. Stevens in The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
Ishiguro's controlled, distant central character is a brilliant illustration of how it's possible to live in close proximity to a large number of people, interact with them daily and remain utterly alone. Stevens seems incapable of stepping outside of his role as butler – even when his father is dying in a room upstairs he carries on working below. He prizes "dignity" above all else and allows his feelings for housekeeper Miss Kenton to remain unacknowledged. He realises far too late what this has cost him.
5. Frederick Clegg in The Collector by John Fowles
Frederick believes the best way to get middle-class art student Miranda Grey to fall in love with him is by keeping her prisoner. After kidnapping her, drugging her and locking her in his cellar he promises to show her "every respect". He persuades himself that 'if more people were like me, in my opinion, the world would be better.' Loners can be content, balanced and sane. Frederick Clegg represents a terrifying, different end of the spectrum.
6. Boo Radley in To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Arthur "Boo" Radley is a heroic loner. Stories have grown up around him because he is never seen and children believe he dines on raw squirrels and cats. He is only lured from his house to save the Finch children from being attacked. After terrible scenes unfold surrounding the trial of Tom Robinson, they begin to understand why someone might not want to be out in the world. Sometimes inside is the safest place to be.
7. The Grinch in How the Grinch Stole Christmas! by Dr Seuss
I hate Christmas, loathe it. So how wonderful it is to have the Grinch on side, the town grump living alone on top of Mount Crumpit, above the Christmas-loving Whos of Who-ville. A creature with a heart two sizes too small, he vows to wreck Christmas by dressing up as Santa and sneaking into all the Who houses to steal their presents and decorations. What a guy
8. Meursault in The Outsider by Albert Camus
The novel opens with its anti-hero's indifference to his mother's death and then days later he murders a man, apparently because it was very hot and the sun was in his eyes. His emotional detachment is fascinating. However, for a loner, he spends a surprising amount of time in company – he has a girlfriend, he goes to the cinema with a colleague twice in one week, he eats dinner at a neighbour's apartment – but throughout all of these encounters you never once believe that he is connecting with anyone, or invested at all in any of the relationships. In prison, awaiting his execution, Meursault feels he is happy and, to feel less alone, hopes for many angry spectators to his death. Chilling and unknowable.
9. Barbara in Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller
Barbara, the narrator of the novel, is an unwilling loner. In her 60s, in her third decade as a history teacher at a dismal secondary school, whole weekends can be planned around a visit to the launderette. But when Barbara Covett (a not-so-subtle surname, it becomes clear) catches sight of new art teacher, Sheba Hart, she believes she may have found a new friend. A friendship, of sorts, does develop and initially the book appears to be about Sheba and her relationship with a 15-year-old student, but the novel reveals itself to be about Barbara's desperate inability to connect.
10. The McPheron brothers in Plainsong by Kent Haruf
Finally, more proof that loners can be concerned, kind and benevolent. The brothers are farmers living on the Colorado plains, 17 miles from the nearest small town. Alone together, they barely speak, communicating through grunts and nods to get the work done. Neither man has ever lived with anyone else until they agree to take in homeless, pregnant, teenager Victoria. Everyday conversation is so foreign to them that they resort, in desperation, to asking her view of the trading price of soybeans. What follows is a moving story of growing trust and friendship.