Outlander

23 March 2015

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Oh Jamie Fraser, how I love you. Sorry Poldark fans but he could totally take Ross in a fight. And he’s much hotter too.

I actually first tried to read Cross Stitch, the first Outlander book, about fifteen years ago when I was pregnant and feeling all bored and fed up and enormously fat. I didn’t get very far as the author’s style really grated for some reason and I couldn’t help thinking that the overall premise was somewhat preposterous. I’ve never really been a fan of science fiction or fantasy and I felt at the time like the plot of Outlander was just a step too far for my delicate sensibilities. However, I’ve since mellowed a little towards fantasy at least, thanks to falling head over heels in love with the Harry Potter and Game of Thrones series and so, while looking for something to get me through a withdrawal from the latter while we all wait for The Winds of Winter to be released, I decided to try again with Outlander, having been assured by more than one person that it was like Game of Thrones only with kilts.

My reading of the first Outlander book also happily coincided with my research trip to Edinburgh earlier this month and an overwhelming surge of repressed passion for the land of my birth. Like Jamie Fraser, the hero of Outlander, I am a born and bred Highlander (and according to my research on Ancestry, apparently the first of my line to permanently leave our corner of Scotland since 1711 when one of my ancestors upped sticks and emigrated to America) but unlike him I was raised by my English maternal grandparents to be ashamed of my Scottish heritage as personified by my waste of space Scottish father and encouraged to consider myself completely English. I was even completely discouraged from acquiring a Scottish accent and to this day can’t even pretend to put one on although I can still speak and understand Scots, ye ken, albeit in a southern English accent.

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My visit to Edinburgh really wrung me out emotionally though. Since leaving Scotland at the age of eleven, I’ve returned just twice for day trips to the Edinburgh Festival and spent maybe the grand total of twelve hours there in total. I’d more or less convinced myself that after so long away, I just wasn’t Scottish any more but I was wrong. What I actually needed to do was spend more than just a few hours there and really feel my way around, listen to the people and, I suppose, get to know it properly. I knew that I would enjoy spending a week in Edinburgh but I was totally unprepared for how emotional the whole experience would be. I really did feel like I had come home and I didn’t realise until I walked out of Waverley station early that morning, looked around and fell promptly in love, how estranged and out of place I have been feeling virtually my whole life long. I’ve always known that something huge was missing (apart from having actual parents but I don’t think I’ll ever resolve that issue) but I didn’t really expect to find it in Edinburgh.

Reading Outlander, which has underlying themes of finding your place in the world, was especially well timed and really added, I suppose, to my growing feeling of enchantment with Scotland as I explored its royal palaces and gazed rapturously at wonderful, sweeping, snow tipped landscapes. Like me, Claire, the heroine of Outlander, is a woman who has had an unconventional childhood spent wandering from place to place and never really putting down any roots, which works in her favour when she teams up with eighteenth century Jacobite hot stuff Jamie, who is a wanted man and can never stay in the same place for long either. Although their moving from place to place forms the backbone of the series as they encounter all manner of adventures and people during their almost restless travels, it’s clear that really what both of them wants is to find somewhere to settle and call home. Now that I’ve re-discovered my love of my own country though, I find myself so much more in sympathy with Jamie for having to leave it behind so many times as although Claire is the ‘outlander’ of the title, he is one too and it’s not a situation that either of them intended although they certainly make the best of it.

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I’m now about a quarter of a way through the fourth Outlander book, Drums Of Autumn which is a bit of a surprise as I intended to finish after the first book and then thought that I HAD to read the second one to see what happens next and then the third one just kind of happened too because I wanted to know what happened to Jamie at Culloden and then, I don’t really know how, but I clicked buy on the fourth one as soon as I’d finished the third and on and on. I might as well just admit that I’m in this race until the last book comes out and have done with it, really.

I could ramble on all day long about the reasons why I love Outlander so much, but I have books of my own to write and you probably all have places that you need to be so I will try to keep this short. Primarily, I think I just love the characters – not just Jamie and Claire, although I adore the pair of them (especially Jamie although Claire is a hard drinking, foul mouthed total BADASS), but everyone else too. Gabaldon really has a gift for making characters come to life and likes to show her readers the skull beneath the skin as it were, rendering no one wholly good or bad, so that you will find yourself hating someone on one page and then feeling SO BAD for them on the next.

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I also really love how well paced the plot is. Like some of my other favourite writers like, for example, Penny Vincenzi, Diana Gabaldon has the knack of dispensing with all the boring stuff while at the same time stuffing her books full of delicious historical detail about life in wherever her characters might happen to find themselves – from Louis XV’s Versailles to colonial Virginia to Edinburgh during the brief residence of Bonnie Prince Charlie. There’s always something happening and although, okay, it does sometimes seem like just TOO MUCH action, it really keeps you reading to find out just what on earth is going to happen next to poor intrepid Mr and Mrs Fraser.

Although I was initially put off the Outlander books because I thought they were going to be all romantic and bodice rippery and trashy (there’s a LOT of sex, yes, but it’s not trashy but rather underlines the connection between the two main characters who really are soul mates), it turns out that all the people who told me that they are actually just as violent and brutal in their way as the Game of Thrones books were bang on the money as, crikey, SO MUCH STABBY DEATH. The fact that Claire worked as a nurse during WWII and then trains as a surgeon adds even more potential for gore and hideousness to the mix as operations and medical procedures are described in lovingly lengthy detail. I’m pretty squeamish and have had to skim read a few pages every now and again, mainly because I like to read my Kindle while having lunch and don’t really want to read about hernia operations or whatever while munching on my vegan sandwich and soup. I’m generally enthralled by it though, mainly because of the detail and because Gabaldon’s enthusiasm is, as always, infectious. You just really want to follow her, and her characters, wherever she decides to go, even if you know that bad things are almost certainly going to happen and probably to characters that you’ve grown to really love. As with Game of Thrones, NO ONE is safe in Outlander. NO ONE.

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However, although Bad Things frequently happen in the Outlander books, the emotional pay off is still massive. I don’t want to spoil the series for those of you who haven’t read them, but the main thing that ultimately keeps me reading is the massive pay off when a much longed for event, such as an epic reunion or a long coming revelation or a huge historical event that you know is coming, finally happens. I don’t often cry over books, but when Jamie and Claire were reunited after a separation, I was practically howling with ALL THE FEELS, as the kids might say, and Diana Gabaldon just kept piling it on and on and on until by the end of the reunion, I was a big fat blubbering mess of woe. There’s another big reunion (of sorts) coming up in the fourth book and I’m already stock piling chocolate, gin and tissues to get me through it. I’m not even joking.

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Above all though, it is Diana Gabaldon’s obvious passion for the history of the period that really shines through and makes these books such compulsive reading. What Gabaldon is doing is offering an unsanitised version of the past as seen through the eyes of a main character who is also from the past (the book opens in 1946) so really the reader is neatly removed from both Claire AND Jamie due to Outlander actually being a historical novel within a historical novel, or something. Oh, I know what I mean. Anyway, I love the way that she lets Claire guide the reader through this alien landscape, which is as weird in some ways as any science fiction setting on a different planet, and the fact that we know that we’re not in altogether safe hands for this guided tour just adds to the experience and makes it even better.

Oh dear, I’m obsessed. OBSESSED, I tell ye.

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(I’m also about four episodes into the Starz television series and absolutely love it. I thought it was going to be all romantic but actually it’s just as dark and brutal as the book. Even my husband likes it, which is fairly unprecedented as he’s not usually one for costume dramas so I’d definitely recommend this one to fellow fans of Game of Thrones etc.)

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Set against the infamous Jack the Ripper murders of autumn 1888 and based on the author’s own family history, From Whitechapel is a dark and sumptuous tale of bittersweet love, friendship, loss and redemption and is available NOW from Amazon UK, Amazon US and Burning Eye.

‘Frothy, light hearted, gorgeous. The perfect summer read.’ Minette, my young adult novel of 17th century posh doom and intrigue is available from Amazon UK and Amazon US and is CHEAP AS CHIPS as we like to say in dear old Blighty.

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