Words by Anna King
Tapadh Leibh, Outlander!
On hearing the synopsis of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, I was initially resistant to pick up the first book – adamantly so, in fact. As a fan of neither steamy romance nor far-fetched science fiction, I couldn’t envision myself enjoying the tale of a Second World War army nurse being thrown back in time through a Scottish stone circle into the 18th century and a whirlwind relationship with a Highlander of Clan Fraser. To be frank – I’m an idiot.
There’s a reason this series is so phenomenally popular: it’s fantastic. Claire Randall’s journey through time is one the reader is limitlessly grateful to witness; not only do these books chronicle a story so alive, so fiery that it seems to burn beneath the fingers, but they’re also a blunt but elegant dissection of what it is to trust. The series simultaneously disregards realism and the boundaries of genre: it’s compelling historical fiction, it’s drama, it’s fantasy – but above all it’s about love.
I mean love as an umbrella term here: while the books are centred around Claire’s ever-evolving, ever-deepening romantic relationship with one James Fraser, familial, platonic and even religious love are explored so honestly and so sensitively by Gabaldon in each book that, on reluctantly finishing, you find yourself haunted, reconsidering your own long-affirmed ideologies.
What particularly floors me is the bold approach to what are often poorly handled or glossed-over topics in literature (rape, domestic abuse, infidelity, miscarriage and prostitution, to name a few). The combination of this with the intelligence and resourcefulness of our protagonist makes the series an absolutely electric study of the human soul, and particularly its resilience in the face of unimaginable adversity. The books are heartbreaking, yes – but saved from being tragic by witty turn of phrase and a stubborn determination in both Claire and Jamie to carry on.
If my ardent praise-singing of Diana Gabaldon still remains unconvincing, though, I’d like to add a word on Scotland. A land whose countryside is just ridiculously beautiful and whose people are justifiably proud of their heritage, Scotland’s representation in these novels had to be pretty special. Gabaldon delivers: her lyrical descriptions of the Highlands and wistful portrayal of the clans which once inhabited them are just exquisite. Within the books, we are given snapshots of a history tumultuous and fascinating; the Jacobite Rising of 1745 and the disastrous aftermath of the Battle of Culloden are written so powerfully as to make the reader angrily burn at the injustice of ancient social and political conflagrations.
The books are a triumphant agglomeration of poetic phrasing, richly woven characters and honest, raw emotion; that’s to say nothing of the enormously successful TV adaptation, which remains, admirably, relatively faithful to the original storyline. The visual gift of the Scottish landscape adds a new, gorgeous dimension to ‘Outlander’, and leading actors Catriona Balfe and Sam Heughan are almost eerily convincing, their forceful performances episode after episode breathe life into these characters. The show, like the book, does have some explicitly sexual scenes in places, but not gratuitously so – as in the books, sex is conveyed simply as one inevitable element of a marriage.
In short: I am endlessly thankful that these books exist. They’re clever, they’re entertaining, and they are incredibly moving. I recommend them to all.