Book Review: “Outlander” by Diana Gabaldon

ImageTitle: Outlander
Author: Diana Gabaldon
Genre: Romance, Historical Fiction, Fantasy
Series: Yes (Book 1 of 7)
Rating: 4 out of 5
My Copy: Purchased

The first thing you encounter when you pick up a copy of Outlander is probably surprise, and maybe a bit of intimidation; the novel is a veritable tome, weighing in at well over 800 pages. Oftentimes, this is enough to scare away the more casual reader, but for me, it was more the book’s reputation and popularity that gave pause.

Throughout my bookish life, I’ve been told I ought to read Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander. It is the single, most oft-recommended book that I’ve ever had suggested to me, and so not inclined to follow the crowd, I resisted. News of an impending mini-series wrought by Ron Moore of Battlestar Galactica fame helped entice me to overcome this initial reluctance, as did the full knowledge of the book’s premise: Jacobite Scotland, espionage, intrigue, highland adventures, and time travel. What’s not to love? As I’ve been on a time travel kick lately, what list of epoch-defying novels is complete without Outlander?

Here ye be warned–spoilers abound in this lengthy review for a lengthy novel.

Summary
Following World War II, Claire Randall and her husband, Frank, embark upon a second honeymoon to Scotland in an attempt to rekindle their war-dwindled romance. Venturing into the countryside, they come across a circle of standing stones, and as Claire is sucked back in time, we are likewise taken along with her.

Positives
The conveyance which transported Claire back two hundred years is simultaneously brilliant and eyebrow-raising. A megalithic circle akin to that of Stonehenge, called Craigh na Dun, is deemed responsible,  and it is also suggested that this is a natural phenomenon that the ancients knew of but did not fully understand. It is implied not that the stones themselves possess the power to thrust a being back in time, but rather more realistically, that the stones were erected ages ago to warn passersby to stay away. Gabaldon’s inclusion of the mythic legends regarding fairies was also clever, and in context, such legends would be a satisfactory explanation for previous occurrences of time travel.

The juxtaposition of Claire’s 20th century mind with the 18th century culture she finds herself thrown into is amusing as well as fascinating. While she’s intelligent enough to avoid more of the situations that would create more comedic scenarios, she’ll still slip and use phrases like “Do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars,” confusing those around her and eliciting a chuckle from the reader.

Negatives
Loch Ness monster? Really, Gabaldon? Someone please convince me how this contributed to the plot. It felt like nothing other than a Scottish cliche inserted to amuse the ignorant masses, who cannot think of Scotland save to conjure images of a smiling Nessie sporting a plaid tam.

I’m going to risk incurring the ire of every Fraser fangirl alive by saying this, but Jaime doesn’t do it for me. At all. I completely fail to see why he’s so appealing and attractive. Repeatedly, we’re reminded of his physical perfection; this smacks of Twilight to me, and beating me over the head with description after description of the hero’s physical glories does not at all convince me of the character’s worth. Jaime is kind enough to Claire, that is true. Initially, he seems to be quite likeable. His use of the term “Sassenach” is downright endearing, even to me (I’ll even admit that I think I’d get chills if someone called me that in a Scottish accent); however, I have to be  brutally honest here, and say that I have had great difficulty getting over the scene where Jaime beats Claire. Yes, it’s period for an 18th century man to be able to thrash his wife in punishment. Yes, he promises to never do it again and adheres to that (at least in the first book). But accurate or not, this is one instance where I am not able to accept period-correct behaviour and dismiss it in context. No woman ever deserves to be beaten, no matter her perceived crime. Is this our literary hero?

This book has an even darker side, one of which I would caution less mature readers. There are several scenes and themes in this book I would consider to be potential “triggers” for anyone with a history of abuse, and even for those merely of faint of heart or weak of stomach. We see scenes of vividly-depicted sexual abuse (heterosexual and otherwise), rape, and sodomy. It’s downright uncomfortable to read, and while I understand Gabaldon’s decision to brave exploration of abuse in the 18th century, I don’t understand why she chooses to revel in the literally gorey details, yet gloss over the ramifications and subsequent trauma. It makes me suspect she did it for shock value, and to villainize Jack Randall as much as humanly possible. To be blunt, it felt somewhat cheap.

Quotes

Jaime was not my first hero. The men moved too quickly through the field hospital, as a rule, for the nurses to become well acquainted with them, but now and again you would a man who talked too little or joked too much, who held himself more stiffly than pain and loneliness would account for.

And I knew, roughly, what could be done for them. If there was time, and if they were the kind who talked to keep the dark at bay, you sat with them and listened. If they were silent, you touched them often in passing, and watched for the unguarded moment, when you might draw them outside of themselves and hold them while they exorcised their demons. If there was time. And if there wasn’t, then you jabbed them with morphine, and hoped they would manage to find someone else to listen, while you passed on to a man whose wounds were visible.

— Chapter 36

The dusk momentarily heightened all the colors of the countryside, lighting the land with jewels; a glowing emerald in the hollows, a lovely shadowed amethyst among the clumps of heather, and burning rubies on the red-berried rowan trees that crowned the hills.”

[…]

We came down from the braes near Loch Madoch, pressing the chilly dawn mist to the edge of a still sheet of grey. Wild ducks began to rise from the reeds in untidy flocks that circled the marshes, quacking and calling to rouse late sleepers below. By contrast, a well-disciplined wedge of geese passed over us, calling of heartbreak and desolation.

The grey fog lifted near midday on the second day, and a weak sun lighted the meadows filled with yellow gorse and broom. A few miles past the loch, we came out onto a narrow road and turned northwest. The way took us up again, rising into low, rolling hills that gave way gradually to granite tors and crags.

— Chapter 25

Thoughts
I have nothing but praise for the way Diana Gabaldon writes. Her prose is lyrical, her descriptions vivid and realistic, and her dialogue is good (though not fantastic or wholly period). She has a strong grasp on the historical and cultural aspects of the 18th century, and I say this as an enthusiast of the era. I only caught one inaccuracy; she refers to a character wearing a cotton gown. While cotton was certainly known and the fabric on its way to becoming a staple (later in the century Eli Whitney’s invention would allow it to become affordable enough to reach the masses), in this context, I felt a garment made of “linsey-woolsey” or plain wool would have been more appropriate.

One area I felt could use a bit more exploration was, exactly what sort of trauma and mental distress time travel would invoke on the traveler. We are given very little of what I would expect to be a horrifying experience for anyone; aside from Claire’s initial confusion and denial, it never seems to occur to her that what she has just experienced is a mind-boggling impossibility. I don’t know about you, but I would be doing some heavy-duty thinking about whether or not my every move would be altering the course of history (read Ray Bradbury’s short story A Sound of Thunder if you haven’t already). This is touched upon more satisfactorily in Dragonfly in Amber (which I’m presently in the midst of), and admittedly a 1940s mind might not be as familiar with the concept of time travel in general as Gabaldon’s modern-day audience. Still, we barely see Claire even ponder her quandary at all.

Another question worth asking is whether or not Claire is a bigamist. Why not just tell everyone she was still married? While technically her husband Frank hadn’t been born yet, this would have alleviated the problems of her being forced to marry again. This is addressed in one of the best portions of the entire novel take place in one of the later chapters, where Claire confides in a kindly priest and consults him on the quandary of her marriage to Jaime. The issue of bigamy is addressed, albeit rather conveniently, but through this, Claire is reawakened to religion. It’s a transformation that’s always tricky to pull off, and Gabaldon does it admirably and respectfully, without the all-too-typical “Hallmark” quality that offends my sense of realism.

Conclusion
I do feel that Gabaldon could use an editor; she can be wordy, often unnecessarily so, but not in her description or exposition. It is in her innumerable adventures, the tales of Claire and Jaime that she wears the reader’s patience. Over and over we read of their exploits across the highlands (and between the bedsheets), again and again we are told of how much they love each other. But that’s just it; we’re told, rather than shown. The age-old adage holds true here. Show, don’t tell. Gabaldon is a master of description, but she fails to give us an emotional connection illustrating exactly why Claire would choose Jaime over Frank. We’re given reasons such as her fear of travelling back through the stones a second time; this makes sense, but don’t you think she would brave that risk for Jaime?

Outlander begins to weave several threads that I can only hope will be grasped more firmly later in the series. Especially the story of Geile Duncan and Frank’s experiences during the war, both of which intrigued me, and neither was fully explored.

Overall, four stars for the sheer magnitude of Gabaldon’s undertaking, her ability to pull it off with considerable aplomb, and her laudable knowledge of the historical elements surrounding 18th century Jacobite Scotland. ♦

Book Spine Poetry

This looked like too much fun to resist, so here’s my attempt at book spine poetry!

(I’m by no means a poet, so consider yourselves WARNED)

Image

So much to be done
by a lady,
the captivating
woman in white.
Common sense
kidnapped
her (a) common life;
love and friendship
in this mountain
are now gone with the wind. ♦

 

Book Review: “84, Charing Cross Road” by Helene Hanff

933c9330dca04517bbcd5010.LTitle: 84, Charing Cross Road
Author: Helene Hanff
Genre: Memoir
Series: No, but The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street is a follow-up chronicling Hanff’s visit to England years later.
Rating: 5 out of 5

For my initial exposure to this story, I have a very dear friend to credit. In passing, she mentioned the movie, and upon discovering my ignorance, we, fairly galloping over to the nearest library that listed the DVD as available, absconded with a copy and promptly watched the film together.

Watching Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft portray the figures of Frank Doel, bookseller, and Helene Hanff, writer, was like meeting a pair of kindred souls. Never have I so rapidly become enamored of a story that so eloquently captured something of myself I’ve always known, but haven’t always been able to articulate. C.S. Lewis said, “We read to know that we are not alone,” and just occasionally, we stumble across a book that makes us thrust our fists into the air and holler, YES! This was one such book.

The back of my slim Penguin paperback summarizes the book succinctly, and for those not familiar with the work, I will include it here:

This charming classic, first published in 1970, brings together twenty years of correspondence between Helene Hanff, a freelance writer living in New York City, and a used-book dealer in London. Through the years, though never meeting and separated both geographically and culturally, they share a winsome, sentimental friendship based on their common love for books. Their relationship, captures so acutely in these letters, is one that will grab your heart and not let go.

Now, I object to the inclusion of the term “sentimental,” for this book is nothing of the sort. It is hilarious, it is witty, and it is touching, but it is also real. Nothing of the disgustingly common sentimental kind is lingering on these pages. There is no cheap play of human emotion or farce here. The parts that could be equated to “touching” or “heart-warming” are born out of genuine human kindness, not something you’d see sniveling across the pages of a Nicholas Sparks novel.

Hanff displays an uncommon knowledge of English literature (the REAL stuff, the GOOD stuff), and makes many literary and cultural references that are a pleasure to catch, if one can, or a delight to discover, if they are unfamiliar. She sends shipments of food to the post-WWII English bookshop to help augment their meagre rations, listens to Corelli, and types out sentences such as:

I do love secondhand books that open to the page some previous owner read oftenest. The day Hazlitt came he opened to, “I hate to read new books,” and I hollered “Comrade!” to whoever owned it before me.

Hands down, my favourite letter is dated October 15, 1951 (reproduced here in all Hanff’s exclamatory, punctuationally-defiant glory), after having been mistakenly sent an abridged copy of Samuel Pepys:

WHAT KIND OF A PEPYS’ DIARY DO YOU CALL THIS?

this is not a pepys’ diary, this is some busybody editor’s miserable collection of EXCERPTS from pepys’ diary may he rot.

i could just spit.

where is jan. 12, 1668, where his wife chased him out of bed and round the bedroom with a red-hot poker?

where is sir w. pen’s son that was giving everybody so much trouble with his Quaker notions? ONE mention does he get in this whole pseudo-book, and me from philadelphia.

i enclose two limp singles, i will make do with this thing till you find me a real Pepys. THEN i will rip up this ersatz book, page by page, AND WRAP THINGS IN IT.

Having worked in a used bookstore, I also identified with Frank Doel. There’s a special sort of joy born out of discovering a book that you know a favourite customer will love. Saving titles for frequent shoppers was something I did regularly, and I loved every minute of it.

Helene Hanff is also something like myself, although perhaps a bit more caustic, brusque, and a good deal more brilliant (although I haven’t yet learned to swig martinis with a cigarette in my hand). But reading her letters makes me want to write more of them myself, and these letters serve as a reminder to hold those friends separated by geography a little bit closer.

I received it as a gift, and if I ever give it as one (which I surely shall), you can be sure I’ll include a set of stationery, a pen, and postage, for the urge to write a letter was never greater than when I came to the final page. Although 84, Charing Cross Road is short, clocking in at only 97 pages, it is 97 pages of pure, unbridled, epistolary delight. ♦