Thursday, July 21, 2011

Book 22 - The Outlander

By Gil Adamson

In 1903 a mysterious, desperate young woman flees alone across the west, one quick step ahead of the law. She has just become a widow by her own hand.

The blurb alone had captured my fancy so I promptly made it one of my birthday requests (thanks bro!). Then I saved it to bring along for our summer trip to the Maritimes. It made a great vacation book: it had a nicely paced story, and was quite beautifully written too, with a nice balance between literary reflection and almost pulpy action.

A minor annoyance was the tiresome literary device of “the slow reveal”. In the beginning, the reader is purposely left ignorant of the events causing the widow to flee from her pursuers. As the story progresses, you learn that the two brothers are hunting their sister-in-law because she had allegedly murdered her husband in cold blood. More gets revealed -- little by little -- the events leading up to “the big trigger” – the day Mary goes ballistic and shoots her husband to death. I suppose the device is useful in mixing things up, every so often providing little breaks from the present narrative as we flash back to Mary’s past, so I can see why Adamson relied on it (like Sarah Waters did for The Night Watch). But I don’t think it would’ve detracted from the novel if I had known sooner either.

There was also the rather self-conscious habit of referring to Mary as “the widow”. Adamson did such a good job in fleshing out the character of Mary Boulton, that calling her the widow all the time kind of reduces her to a caricature or symbol. Quite a few other reviewers on Goodreads remarked on this too, so I wasn’t alone. There was also a decent love story woven in. After Mary ran to the hills (the Rockies) and after several days in the wilderness is left starved and exhausted, she was rescued by a fellow fugitive William Morleand, aka the Ridgerunner. I won’t reveal much further except this amusing quote from a Q&Q review:

A somewhat unbelievable romantic interlude ensues – can you imagine what the Ridgerunner must smell like after nine years of camping out in the Rockies?

But these are only trifling complaints for me since the novel is really quite good overall with many things I appreciated, like Adamson’s descriptions of character, perspective and place. I really felt like I was right there when Mary was lost in the mountains. I once spent a sleepless night camping alone on a meadow in Mount Seven (Golden, BC). I had never experienced that before, alone inside a pitch-black tent listening to constant rustling sounds from various creatures of the night. This passage totally reminded me of that:

She rested that dusk and woke later to find all light erased. The night was so dark she thought something stood between her eyes and the rest of the world. Blindness could not be this complete. Nothing but the sound of wind through trees. Somewhere to her left, the breathing horse. And high above, the slow funhouse creaking of pine branches. A blessing of her young life had been the fact that she remained more afraid of her own mind than of the dark. In fact, she loved the night. Still, here among the trees there was the call of unknown things. Small scrounging sounds to the left…or in front?

As a Quill and Quire reviewer notes:

…What is interesting about the book… is the fact that most of the characters come from well-heeled backgrounds (the brothers are always described in their “fine black boots”) and now find themselves battling the elements in one of the most forbidding environments on Earth. This is what continues to give Susanna Moodie’s Roughing It in the Bush such power, and Adamson’s description of Mary’s upbringing strikes a similar note: “a mire of useless things: sonatas and ├ętudes; the art of a good menu; trousseaux … Bedtime at nine … Alabaster skin and parasols.” These are the items that run through her mind as she tries to puzzle out which alpine plants will keep her from starvation and which will kill her instantly.

I also appreciated the clever yet thoughtful way Adamson fleshed out William Moreland’s character by having Mary sneak a peak inside his notebook while he’s away hunting:

…A strange picture of this man’s life formed in her mind out of these glimpses.

He was soft of heart: “This evening I watched the thick beautiful green mountains surrounding the Canyon Station.” He wrote humourously about God: “The Great Elementary Director has spent almost twenty-eight days amusing himself by way of creating misery for earthly humans. I for one would almost think he had created a switch that would alternate from rain to snow.” And it seemed he had lived lately in empty ranger stations and observation towers: “…the observer feels as if they were becoming strangely intoxicated by the airy stimulants evaporating from such a beautiful nature-created scene.”

Here was a man who suffered no loneliness, who spent his days as he wished…

Most of all, I appreciated Adamson’s deft approach to the theme of being a woman in a man’s world and making it work with an engaging narrative. Mary is intelligent and innately unconventional, who happens to have the misfortune of being an uneducated woman at the turn of the 20th century, struggling with her new role as a young wife to an ungrateful pioneer husband:

…for it was much his usual habit: him watching her struggle to do the most basic things a wife must do, dissatisfaction written all over him. Her grandmother would have blamed her. She was a poor domestic student – in her ineptitude. Mary brought censure upon herself. Never mind that she was barely nineteen, or that all her training had been for a different kind of life. There was, she believed, something about her, or in her, that bred dissatisfaction. She remembered her grandmother saying to her, “You must stop being such a gloomy child. Can you not be pretty inside as well?"

To summarize, The Outlander was a very enjoyable read. I don’t understand some of the complaints about the various plot improbabilities, which is likely due to the fact that The Outlander is published by the prestigious House of Anansi Press (we're talking CanLit here, people). But since when did Canadian novels have to be all realistic, gloomy and unexciting? Can they not have some of those lurid tropes of genre fiction, like nail-biting action, melodrama and romance? For “contemporary literature”, I think Adamson did a wonderful job of creating a nice balance between the two.

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