Over the course of this week, I’ve been working through the back-log of reviews of books I read during my honeymoon to Bali. Now, The Luminaries (which I loved) had won the Booker Prize. We Were Liars (which I was ambivalent about) had received rave reviews on several of my favourite blogs.But neither of them had been recommended to me anywhere near as frequently or as evangelically as today’s holiday read, Outlander. In fact, I’m not sure that any book has ever been recommended to me as often as Outlander has. You love eighteenth century history? Outlander. You like time-travel? Outlander. You enjoy romance, as long as it’s done well and had a three-dimensional hero? Outlander, Outlander, Outlander.
So, safely ensconced on my sunlounger, I finally decided to bow to the collective wisdom of Goodreads and WordPress. And while this was a good holiday read in the sense that it combines being reasonably light while providing hours of reading time, rarely can a book have been less suited to a location. It’s the sort of book that’s best read by a warm fire on a stormy night or out on a moor on a wild day. And ideally, it’s probably best read in Scotland. Considering I live in England, none of those conditions would be too difficult to arrange most of the time, but being difficult, I waited until I had tropical heat and the smell of spice and incense everywhere.
On a similar note, I like to read and drink things that either conjure up the spirit of a book or that characters in a novel particularly enjoy. And in this case, that meant one thing – whisky, and lots of it. The problem being that whisky was not particularly easy to get hold of. Luscious cocktails? Yes. Fresh coconut water? Yes. Locally produced beer and wine? Absolutely. Finest Scottish malts? Not so much. As a result, I may have ended up panic buying a £16 shot of whisky when I finally saw some on a menu. (It could have been worse. I could have been reading Book Two which is set in France and involves copious quantities of brandy, which was even more of a challenge to procure).
OUTLANDER (DIANE GABALDON) 4 STARS
Despite all those recommendations and the fact that I was quite intrigued by the premise – 1940s army nurse finds herself in 1740s Scotland and ends up torn between two husbands in different centuries – I waited so long to read this as I was worried that the romance might be cheesy and the history badly researched. I was also rather put-off by the 900 page length, which seemed a bit over-the-top for what I was expecting to be a light, escapist read.
Firstly, if you’re going to read it, I strongly suggest that you do what I did and save it for a holiday or a time when you’re able to spend hours reading. Its sheer length means it takes ages to get through (and I say this as a very fast reader), plus, it’s the sort of book where you really need to absorb yourself in the world, not dip in and out.
Secondly, I’ve seen some debate about the genre of this book, but in my opinion, it’s predominantly a romance. It’s a well-done romance, and there are certainly also aspects of straight-up historical fiction, of paranormal/fantasy, and of adventure, but frankly, if romance leaves you cold, I really wouldn’t recommend this one. Similarly, I struggle to imagine many men enjoying it.
So, with those two points, out of the way, what did I think about it? In short, there were lots of things I loved and some that I hated, but the story sucked me in to the extent that I was able to happily overlook flaws that would have had me throwing a different book across the room.
For me, the best things about the book were the prose – which is much better than you might expect in this sort of genre novel – the main character (Claire) and the setting. Enjoyably tough and mostly unfazed by the increasingly strange things that happen to her, Clare was also just vulnerable enough to be likeable and believable. I also loved that she was sexually confident and happy to induct a virgin husband into the delights of the flesh – a nice change from all the painfully virginal heroines that seem to be the current trend. The other characters were generally interesting too, though some of the clansmen started to blur into one. Jamie, the main love interest, isn’t really my literary type. I generally prefer suave, charming and slightly edgy men to the rugged but adorable sorts, but while I wasn’t swooning on the floor, he was a strong romantic lead and definitely made me smile. If he could get a response out of me, then if hulking kilted warrior types are your cup of tea, you’re going to be in love.
The setting – both in terms of history and geography – was lovingly described and seemed well-researched. I really felt like I was right there in eighteenth century Scotland. The author mostly resisted the urge to over-romanticise the period, giving readers the danger and dirt as well as the excitement. In-between several dramatic episodes, there are enlightening scenes of everyday life: delivering a foal, preparing for a feast, treating minor injuries.
I felt that having Claire time-travel from the 1940s rather than from the present day was a stroke of genius, for several reasons. Firstly, it gives readers who love history two beautifully depicted periods instead of one. Secondly, it helps to stop the book from having dated. Thirdly, I found it slightly more believable that someone who has lived through WW2 could cope with the deprivations of eighteenth century life, compared to someone from today.
Moving onto the bad. Firstly, while I liked the way the book spent time fully immersing the reader in its world rather than dashing from plot point to plot point, I thought it was a bit too long overall, and got repetitive in parts. I think it would have felt a lot sharper with, say, 150 fewer pages.
Secondly, I found the way that Claire was constantly bouncing from one disaster to another – including seemingly endless attempted rapes – to not quite work. It felt oddly episodic. I also felt the time-travel elements were underplayed. I’d loved to have seen more use made of the fact that Clare knew things about the characters and knew things that would happen in the future.
Thirdly, there was a rather odd obsession with beatings of every kind – from parents chastising their children, to the clan punishing a teenager for indecency, to a brutal flogging, to a torture session, and perhaps most oddly, a scene that sat uncomfortably between a kinky spanking and straight-up wife beating, leading straight into a scene that equally uncomfortably blurred the lines between rough sex and marital rape. Along with the scenes of gratuitous Catholicism, while it may have had some basis in period accuracy, it sometimes felt like a not altogether pleasant look into the author’s psyche.
Above all, the main villain, Randall, was a bit of a let down. The idea that the sadistic English army captain who is oppressing the highlands is Claire’s loving 1940s husband’s ancestor was a brilliant one, but ended up being underused. It would have been brilliant if he was charming as well as cruel and if Claire was having to fight an attraction to him and stop herself from linking him with her husband in her mind. One scene almost suggested things were about to go down that route, but no. He ended up being the most horribly one-dimensional villain I’ve come across in a long time. He literally seemed unable to hold a conversation with someone (male or female, young or old) without attempting to rape and/or beat them, and he didn’t appear to have any sort of grand plan beyond finding more people to rape and beat. This irritated me more than it usually would, as it seemed to be at least partly playing up to the “English=evil, Scottish/Irish = good” stereotype so beloved of Hollywood directors. At times, this book made Braveheart look non-partisan – not always a comfortable read as an English woman.
Overall, despite those issues, I’d recommend this, and I haven’t been able to resist starting Book Two. I’d suggest you consider whether these are things that would put you off a book completely, or whether, with strong characters, a well-realised setting and a generally interesting plot, you’d be able to overlook them.
For what it’s worth, I did end up diving straight into Book Two, which I’m probably enjoying even more, and I have found myself thinking about the books when I’m not reading them, which is always a good sign – although not wildly helpful when I’ve had to do pieces of work relating to the Scottish Referendum!