From The Outside – When internet millionaire and philanthropist Harry Melville dies in a car crash at the age of forty four, the lives of his wife, Sarah, and twin brother, Ben, are thrown into turmoil. Harry seemed to have it all; a close-knit family and a happy marriage – along with all the trappings of wealth. Yet as he recalls his past from the afterlife, a story emerges of the unspoken and bitter jealousies between brothers and of an unhappy wife burdened by loneliness and guilt.
When Ben takes over the running of Harry’s charity foundation he begins to find purpose for the first time in years. But the arrival of a talented young artist brings a series of revelations that expose Harry’s complex and dual personality in full. As he learns his part in the suffering of those he left behind, is it too late for Harry to make amends? A tale of regret and redemption in this world and the next. From the Outside looks at the futile rivalries that can destroy sibling relationships and the lost opportunity for happiness when ego is allowed to reign over emotion.
Review – From The Outside
“Original, intoxicating and oozing intrigue, this is a mesmerising twister of a story that sucks you in from the very first page.” (Shari Low)
“Clare Johnston brings us a beautifully-written tale of brotherly ties, family fractures, and finding peace with those we leave behind.” (Leslie Manning)
“A gripping read from another brilliant Scottish author.” (Judy Murray)
“I can’t recommend From the Outside enough! So full of heart and warmth, as well as intrigue and twists.” (Alice Hinds, Sunday Post)
CHAPTER one – From The Outside
SITTING ON THE EMBANKMENT I took in the endless expanse of blue sky, the warmth from a sun I couldn’t see melting away the worries that had been lodged in my head all morning. The cars rushed by along the motorway in front of me, but their noise was muted. I could see them but the sound just didn’t register. It was then I noticed the mangled wreck of the silver Audi sitting so hopelessly to my left, smashed and broken like the driver slumped over the inflated airbag at the wheel. Already, there were people all around the car. A bottle-blonde woman who looked to be in her late forties made a frantic call to the emergency services on her mobile, while others paced next to the driver’s side, pausing now and then to peer in the window. Finally, one of them plucked up the courage to prise open the door, only to stand stock still once he’d completed his daunting task, confronted by the terrible reality of what sat before him. He glanced nervously back at the blonde woman who was still on the phone as if to say: ‘What now?’ ‘Check if he’s breathing,’ she said, pointing towards the lifeless victim – in doing so accepting the leadership role she had unwittingly been awarded. Another pause as the man tried to work out the best way of checking for breath without actually touching the body. He put his hand over the driver’s mouth, then leaned forward to put his ear next to it. A second flash of panic swept over his face. From The Outside
Poor guy. I’d say he was in his thirties, dressed in a nondescript dark suit, with the air of a hassled sales executive on his way to the next meeting when, sod’s law, he just happened to be one of the first to pass the scene of a terrible accident. Good for him too that he actually stopped. I’m hopeless in any medical situation, which is why I had absolutely no intention of getting involved. It had already become obvious to me that their efforts to assist the forty-something, Rolex-wearing man were futile. After all, it was me sitting at the wheel of that mangled Audi, and me watching this scene of devastation from the safety of my ringside seat. And I knew there was no way I was coming out of that one. I was most certainly dead.
It occurred to me this was a strange situation to find myself in. Here I was, witnessing my own death – or the aftermath of it – as though standing by a shore watching the waves lapping against the sand. There was no emotion, just a sense of perfect calm … and something else, something harder to define. I will call it an understanding and appreciation of what was happening, as if I’d somehow been expecting it. I felt more compelled to look at the people flapping anxiously around me than to study my own tragic form. I’ve never seen a greater look of relief than the one I witnessed on the salesman as he first heard the siren and then looked around to see the flashing lights of a police car approaching. As soon as it pulled over, an officer jumped out and ran to check the driver. I felt like walking over and telling him I could save him the trouble, but I knew they’d never hear me. I understood that I had left that world. I was somewhere else now; on my own, but not alone. Somewhere I belonged. It was time to move. I got to my feet, turned around and started walking up the side of the embankment towards the field of rapeseed that stretched before me – that light stronger than ever, its warmth enveloping me so that I could feel nothing else. Where am I going? I didn’t care. I just knew I should just keep walking. From The Outside
I had not gone far before, in the distance and through the light, I could just make out the figure of a woman coming towards me. As she drew closer I could see she had jet-black hair. Then I recognised the deep-purple, flowing trouser suit she wore. I had seen it before – clung to it when I was a child, begging her not to leave me with the neighbour while she went out for the evening with my father. I waved at her then ran, arms outstretched, she soon running too, smiling all the way until we met and clung to one another. ‘Harry,’ she said, so softly and lovingly. Just as I had remembered. ‘Mum,’ I whispered, pulling back to look into the face that had kissed me goodnight for fifteen years; fifteen years before I decided I was too old for motherly affection. The face I had yearned to see on my wedding day, ten years ago, and the face that told me all was as I had hoped. With nothing to fear, we walked hand in hand together.
Review – From The Outside
From the Outside, by Scottish writer Clare Johnston, is the story of two grown brothers—twins—barely connected while together on earth, but brought together after one of them dies in a tragic accident. The title is perfect, as it is truly suited to the story. Or, perhaps, it is the other way around, with a narrator perfectly suited to the title. The title From the Outside seems to offer different meanings: 1. A literal meaning: A dead man watches his loved ones (and not so loved) from beyond the grave; 2. A psychological meaning: One must step outside his narcissistic self in order to see what is truly important; and 3. A spiritual meaning: It is better to totally immerse oneself into the human condition, instead of living a lonely life on the periphery.
So many of us wish to be a fly on the wall after death to see how others move forward without us, or how they viewed us in life. Maybe this idea is not as fictional as some believe. Maybe this is part of the process, being able to listen in on our loved ones’ thoughts, and watching them as they struggle—or not—to move on without us. Buried truths are often exposed after the death of a loved one, and this story is no different. But I don’t really want to talk about the story, because, for me, it is the narrator who has stayed with me long after the book ended. The author astutely uses an omniscient narrator, Harry Melville, who has the ability to see all, hear all, and understand all about the ones he left behind. What a unique and open-minded way to tell a story, with a dead man looking back over his life, and explaining it to the reader, inch by inch, including revelations that unfold in real time.
From the Outside does not follow a strict exposition-to-denouement format. The climbing action takes up most of the novel, and the climax isn’t a slap-in-the-face surprise like in many novels. While some readers may find the story a bit dry, I enjoyed it for the slow burn. So many authors today are hell bent on writing a story with such high stakes that we sit on the top of the roller coaster for most of the book, when really some of the best parts of life are what we find at the bottom and at the slower turns.
While Sarah, Harry’s widow, is not my favorite female character of all time—too many highs and lows with her moods distanced her from me—she does play an important catalyst, allowing us to see Harry through her eyes. Also, I would have enjoyed seeing Harry in movement from time to time, as opposed to being ONLY a fly on the wall. While I understand that he has no special powers as a dead man to change things on earth, it would have been interesting to see his character a bit more emotional. But that is only my opinion, and it neither detracted from the author’s purpose, nor the strength of the narration itself.
All in all, Clare Johnston brings us a beautifully-written tale of brotherly ties, family fractures, and finding peace with those we leave behind. For me, the lesson is this: Sometimes it takes a sudden separation for us to discover a new connection, one that is created not because of, but in spite of what we did while alive. For some, this means that the connection is not made until it is too late. But I see things as Harry does: that perhaps it is never too late.
Whatever your takeaway from this story, I hope you connect to the deeper meaning that our spirits continue to learn even after death, and much of this knowledge is gained through the ones we leave behind.
About the Author
Clare Johnston is a journalist and content specialist, and a frequent contributor on radio and TV, having appeared on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, The Kaye Adams Programme and comedy satire show Breaking the News on BBC Radio Scotland, along with STV2’s Live at Five. She is a former editorial director of Press Association Scotland and commercial editor and columnist with the Daily Record. She is currently working with the DC Thomson media group, and supports businesses with communication and content creation.