It’s been a while since I wrote a proper “booknotes” post, but this weekend while Hanna was away in Maine I finally hunkered down and read Diana Gabaldon’s latest installment in the epic Outlander cycle (now clocking in at seven volumes each seven hundred to one thousand pages in hardcover), Echo in the Bone. (Warning: mild series spoilers ahead).
I was first introduced to Outlander under its British title, Cross Stitch in Aberdeen by my Glaswegian roommate, Vicki, who is (or at least was) an adoring fan. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the series, it centers on the relationship between Claire Beauchamp, a Second World War nurse, who accidentally time-travels back to eighteenth-century Jacobite Scotland and — also somewhat accidentally — marries a young Scottish fugitive named Jamie Fraser. The first book revolves around Claire’s attempts to return to her own time (1950s England) and the husband she left behind, while at the same time she finds herself falling passionately in love with Jamie. Without giving all the ins and outs of the romance and drama away, the saga weaves its way across Europe and America, the eighteenth and the twentieth century, and has expanded to encompass multiple generations of the Beauchamp-Fraser family and a sprawling cast of secondary characters. The science fiction / time-travel aspect of the narrative — while integral to the plot in many respects — also takes firm second-place to the political and personal dramas in which the characters get caught up as they move from one space/time context to the other.
An Echo in the Bone is a solid installment in the ongoing series, though Gabaladon’s expansive cast of characters has become increasingly difficult for her to manage — or at times hard for readers to follow, particularly if you don’t have the time to sit down and read the book in a marathon session (I tried the chapter-before-bed method during term-time and eventually gave up, setting it aside for vacation). There was speculation around the publication of A Breath of Snow and Ashes the sixth book would be the final volume, or be followed by a prequel or spin-off story, but she’s apparently decided to continue spinning the main narrative out, as Bone not only comprises of 800-plus pages of story but also ends with several cliff-hangers that I doubt will just be allowed to die. I have a slightly mixed feeling about this, since there was something bittersweet about reading Ashes as a final installment . . . but since Cross Stitch/Outlander was originally meant to be a one-off fantasy novel, Gabaldon fans have (I imagine, anyway) long since grown used to the idea that her sagas will inevitably be longer than originally predicted.
I’ve talked to a few friends who’ve had trouble with the sex and gender roles in the series — trouble enough that they’ve quit reading the books altogether. And as this is a blog with “feminist” in the title I figured I’d take a minute to reflect on how sex and gender (as well as sexual orientation) seems to play out in the series overall. Speaking for myself, I really had to make my peace with the series in this regard: I was really upset with the power dynamics between Claire and Jamie in the first book and by some of the sexual violence that went largely uncriticized within the stories. Gabaldon’s characters also have a really annoying habit of talking in gender essentialisms (i.e. “men are all X” and/or “women are all Y”). Most of the hetero relationships in the story (which is virtually all of them) are very male-as-protector and woman-as-nurturer. It’s explained away, in part, as historical accuracy (that is, Jamie as an eighteenth-century man has learned to think in certain ways about marriage, about sex, and so forth), and to be fair over the course of the series characters’ opinions are challenged and do change. However, certain behaviors continue to be explained away as grounded in innate characteristics based in sex, an explanation I find just as unsatisfactory in fiction as I do in real life. It seems to me a mark of lazy thinking on the part of the character and (by implication) their creator.
The violent sex and sexual violence are a bit more difficult to gloss over and/or explain away by historical context. I haven’t spoken to anyone who’s a survivor of sexual abuse or violence who’s tried the series, but I imagine that the graphic descriptions of rape and sexual violence could be unpleasant and/or impossible to read. One of the best parts of the series, at least in my mind, is Gabaldon’s penchant for writing erotic and and often light-hearted sex scenes (I was, in fact, disappointed that the most recent installment featured relatively few); the downside is that if you’re not into the kind of sex her characters are into, it can be difficult to make it through the graphic descriptions without feeling a bit icky about the relationship dynamics. Personally, though a few of the early scenes had me cursing and tossing the paperback edition of Cross Stitch across my dorm room, in the end I made the decision to let the characters have what is clearly a pleasurable and consensual sexual relationship without judgment from me.
Be warned, also, that the arch-villain in the first few books is a sadist with a taste for sexual violence, both hetero- and homosexual (he seems to fixate on individuals regardless of gender; both Jamie and Claire are assaulted by him in various contexts, with Jamie suffering the worst of the abuse). While Gabaldon (possibly in recompense?) has since written at least one gay male character who is one of the good guys — and actually features in his own series of stand-alone short stories — I was wary at first to have same-sex sex so closely associated with rape.
And as a final note, I’ve never been particularly irritated with historical fiction that plays lightly with the actual historical record, but those who care deeply about either eighteenth-century European or American history may be frustrated with the melange of historical detail and fiction that Gabaldon brings together for her time-traveling romps through the era.
My ultimate advice? Don’t take them too seriously, let the characters win you over, and have a great time.