One day last week, when I was very tired, I downloaded onto my Kindle what I thought would be a quick read: Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon. Hours later I was still reading. I finished it the next day. As I say, I was tired and so I thought it was just that I was reading slowly. (The Kindle ‘location numbers’ make it hard to tell how long a book is.) So I checked amazon.com on my desktop and found the paperback is nearly 900 pages. That’s…long. But it really didn’t feel that big. It’s not boring (or not often). In fact, it’s an excellent read–
–if you can stand boy/girl sex every fifteen pages, the kind where both parties are limp and exhausted afterwards, in which they open like flowers and pound like blunt instruments, and occasionally hurl crockery at each other afterwards.
I’m not going to bother with a plot precis–go read online reviews–but if it were a film the logline would read something along the lines of: Sensual, no-nonsense ex-nurse Claire travels back in time from 1948 to the Jacobite-infested Highlands of 1743 (or perhaps 1744) and fights with a perverted English army captain for the body and soul of her clansman husband. Much sex, fighting, and nursing ensue.
This book gallops along. The prose is mostly competent, occasionally awful, and once or twice quite stunning. But this book isn’t about limpid prose. It is a storyteller’s showcase.
Gabaldon (mostly) knows her stuff. She certainly has done her research when it comes to herbal medicine. (I’ll have to reread and take notes for the Hild book.) She also manages to convey Scottishness well. Her dialogue is distinctive without being irritating. Every now and again there’s a weird non-British off-note but the rest is so strong it carried me right past the false notes. (No, I can’t give you an example. The Kindle is, frankly, crap for skimming through text looking for examples, and I was enjoying the book too much while reading it to stop and take notes or to bookmark stuff.)
Americans (sweeping statement alert) are not very good at Englishness, whether in fiction or doing accents on TV. Of course, English people aren’t much better at doing American/s. (Oh, stop it, you know what I’m talking about: portraying, not *doing*. As far as I’m aware, there’s no difference between the countrywomen of our fine nations.) I am never fooled by an actor’s accent. Except once: Jamie Bamber on Battlestar Galactica. I was truly surprised to hear him talk in his native English for a Making Of special.
The stunning parts come late in the book where (a) Claire literally, physically wrestles for the soul of Jamie, her clansman husband and (b) she asks for god’s help. The former is a bravura piece of writing, taken on the volley, and the latter is a carefully honed set piece. At least that, from a fellow writer’s perspective, is how they feel to me.
So I was expecting a low-grade piece of time travel romance, perhaps with a few fun moments of whacking-their-heads-off-with-swords, and got something much, much better. Something with women and men who inhabit their gender roles in ways that make them very human (while brilliantly not contravening the cliches and strictures of romantic fiction). I’ve already started the second book in the series, Dragonfly in Amber. I’m having a blast.