Review of Outlander Book #1, by Diana Gabaldon

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This is the type of novel that you’ll want to read in the thick of autumn, while either dreading or looking forward to the advent of winter. Simply put, Outlander is the perfect addition to your Pumpkin Spice latte filled evenings, as the cool, autumn breeze filters its way through a crack in your window. Maybe, you have a fire going, ablaze with energetic, unrelenting flames, emanating heat, as your hands touch your small, blue paperback volume of Outlander, and you’ll slip almost instantaneously away into the bewildering, alien, and sometimes strikingly beautiful world of eighteenth century Scotland. The transition is seamless, because the narration coming from Claire’s mind (an adept, witty,level-headed nurse from WWII England) provides very personal commentary, lending you a human voice to touch down and serve as the strong narrational firmament for this time-traveling, historical drama that I confess to greatly enjoying every page and scene of.

First off, this is not a Harlequin romance, and Diana Gabaldon does such a humorous job, subverting any and all cloying tropes of more stupidly saccharine examples, of kilt-ridden bodice rippers. This is not cheap, titillating thrills, for low-brow readers. Rather,it’s a carefully-research work of historical fiction, which is comprised of all the necessary elements of good fiction, including well-developed romance, drama, action, and even touches of mystery and political intrigue. It is above all, though, an extremely rich character study, and in many ways, a subtle contrast showing how history is subjectively seen differently from the eyes of someone born in a particular time period, or someone that is an outlander,or sassenach (Gaelic pejorative word for “foreigner”) trying to actually live directly in a certain historical period, without being given the luxury of analyzing the details from a more sterile setting, far in the future.

See, Claire’s first husband, in the twentieth century, is a historian, and his descriptions of the Scottish history is relatively ponderous and glacially-paced, as told from the account of someone just observing from it from afar. In many ways, Claire, being a surgeon, is someone that lives not from reading textual accounts of historical events, but is really a much more experiential learner. And, someone that is open to learning through experiential ways of learning is someone that is already has the right adaptive personality, to travel back in time, and acclimate themselves to an entirely different way of life, with foreign customs, dialects, etc. So, it was a stroke of genius for Diana Gabaldon to make Claire a surgeon-a highly flexible, inquisitive personality.

So, one strand of Claire’s story, is the story of a time-traveler, and the psychological ramifications of it  for the actual person traveling back in time. Diana Gabaldon does something, shows like Doctor Who, fail to authentically portray in any way, which is showing just how difficult it would be for someone to travel through time, from a more modern setting with antibiotics, better hygiene, and to somewhere that is much less knowledgeable about proper sanitation. Everything around her is bound to look a bit squalid, and that is another impressive feat for Diana Gabaldon. Diana Gabaldon never romanticizes any aspect of history, including the brutality and sometimes the decidedly sadistic customs of punishment and “justice” of these times. The notion of the judicial process (more like rough-edged arbitration) is much less polished, sterile, and humane in eighteenth century Scotland, and again; Diana really conveys that disparity that Claire feels, the oddness, that exists when what we feel familiar with or accustomed to in our societal structures is suddenly changed before our eyes.

Through masterful plotting, the romantic relationship Claire shares with Jamie gives us an opportunity, as readers, to explore not just two dynamically different individuals, exploring romantic and sexual intimacy in a very frank, reverent way (more on the frankness of the sexuality in the novel a bit later), but to again really explore the subjective differences in what we feel is ethically acceptable or conscionable forms of punishment or legal practices in our society. Their intimacy is not just about endless rounds of passionate sex, without any real artistic or narrative purpose; their relationship (every nuance of their development) is well-developed, and readers thus get enamored quickly with their relationship. If you’ve seen the photos of the wedding episode (a very well-produced, beautiful episode), this book is not anywhere in the territory of Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey, which depict relationships that are devoid of any intellectual substance, meaning they’re just about desire and hierarchical/ patriarchal notions of sex.

There is something so ridiculously backwards about these stories, where sexual desire is all about one inferior person succombing to their desire to appease a superior personIt drives me bonkers that nearly all sex scenes in books and films are always so restrictively hierarchical, as though to say passion is nothing but about power and domination. Perhaps, we still live in a very Augustinian culture, where we must express our sex scenes in the most masochistic, self-effacing way possible, in that someone can never fully enjoy it, because they must always be doing to succomb or appease some more dominant person.
When Outlander comes along, we get lingering scenes of developing passion that is much more than lust and purple prose (that completely detracts from the psychological realism of sexual expression therein), the sex scenes are actually a bit too intimate sometimes, because the book has a very strong portrayal of martial eroticy, meaning we are getting a very nuanced window into just how deeply passionate and sublime sex is when it involves two people who can talk deeply and liberally about their feelings, and there exists a bond stronger than just desire and lust. Also, the relationship between Claire and Jamie is very egalitarian, which makes it more beautiful and artful for the reader, knowing that they both trust each deeply, and there is a strong sense of fidelity in their relationship.

In our culture, fidelity is often demeaned in books, again it’s a symptom of Augustinian guilt over sex, which has made it nigh impossible to again depict sex in an artistic/edifying way, which shows it can be life-fulfilling, and alchemically beautiful, when the two people in love actually love every part of that other person. And, the episode showcasing the wedding is easily one of the most beautiful, poignant expressions of marital intimacy in the last year. Some could easily say for all the right reasons that it is very feminist, but it really is more artful and egalitarian, and it’s this very not-so superficial, but deep exploration of the relationship between Jamie and Claire that really gives this book poetic verve and transcendental beauty, with passages that will stay with you after you read this book.

Most important, the action and political intrigue is done superbly, so don’t get the wrong impression this is a romance. All the facets of this novel are handled very well, and structured in a very measured way to really provide readers a complete tale, with historical details so seamlessly woven in that they never feel thrown in haphazardly. The beauty of Diana Gabaldon’s writing is sure to stay with you, after you finish reading the book, and I’m still pondering this book long after closing the last page. In a world where it is so hard sometimes to find something that can balance the brutality and sadism of the world (and there’s a lot of that in this book, which is done tastefully and ethically) with beautiful moments of moral good, love, and justice. It’s a rich, edifying tale, that even has a long, meditative spiritual section at the end, which even makes the novel transcend to more numinous levels, making this novel impressively multifaceted, in all the artistic and technical levels it hits upon in so many ways.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m moving onwards to the next novel in the series, to read, while in the midst of working on two novels at the same time: Death Seer and Chronosphere Part 1: I Am!

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