Sunday, May 11, 2008
Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon
Apparently, this book kick started a genre called "time-traveling romance novels." Gabaldon decided she wanted to write a novel, and somewhat arbitrarily chose 18th century Scotland as her location. One of her characters, however, didn't behave like an 18th century lady. Instead she stomped around refusing to be left behind when anything interesting happened, swearing like the 20th century emancipated female she was. With a character this vivid, Gabaldon had to explain her presence, and thus a new genre was born.
In brief, Claire Randall has finally rejoined her husband Frank at the end of World War II. Claire has been serving as a military nurse, and Frank had also been in service. After six years of separation, they are finally coming together, and have a second honeymoon in Scotland. While exploring an ancient stone circle, she slips into a crack in the stone and finds herself back 200 years.
The first person she meets is Black Jack Randall, an ancestor of her husbands and a vicious English officer battling uppity Scots. She is soon discovered by a small party of MacKenzies, and taken to their castle stronghold. For plot related reasons, she finds herself forced to marry one of the clansman, a tall redhead named Jamie Fraser, and the book chronicles her life trying to adjust to 18th century life while trying to get back to her own time.
Life in the Scottish Highlands is depicted as incredibly physical. Clans raid each others' territories, stealing cattle and provoking fights. The men are portrayed as intensely loyal to their clan, and deeply concerned with their honor, which means they end up fighting each others' enemies and sleeping on the run quite a bit.
Jamie Fraser has been labeled an outlaw, and so cannot return to his home or be picked up by the English. Unfortunately, he is betrayed, and turned over to Black Jack Randall for a scene of rather gruesome torture and a rather fantastical rescue mission that frees Jamie from prison.
Claire and Jamie end up in France as he heals, and the story ends as they ponder where they should go.
At heart, this is a classic romance novel--Gabaldon dispenses with some of the standard cliches, but retains the basic plot arc: two people forced together by circumstances come to love each other and in the end chose to stay. Layered over this is interesting Scottish history and landscape writing, but the plot is meandering to say the least. It works well if you are content with diverting storytelling with no appreciable narrative drive, and have the free time to enjoy the wandering.
I have been listening to this as an audiobook, which has the advantage of letting me bypass the written Scottish accents and just listen to the rolling vowels. The performer, Davina Porter, trips across the Gaelic words, which makes the whole book easier to slip into because I was not constantly tripping over words that had no vowels and a lot of extra consonants.
It is a monster of a book--nearly 34 hours of narration, which is certainly value for the money, but perhaps a bit disruptive to normal daily life--it was hard to me to discard my earbuds to actually talk to my family while listening, and I find the sounds of Porter's Scottish accents echo in my ears.
On a scale of 1 to 10, I'd probably rate this book about a 6, but that doesn't explain quite why I've already downloaded the next two volumes onto my iPod, and why I brought the companion book home from the library.