Review of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

I chose to read this book because I saw that Gabaldon had come top in a survey of the most popular historical novelists. I soon understood what the winning formula was. Lots of sex and plenty of violence, in roughly equal measures!

If you can accept the premise that a woman in 1946 can walk between a pair of standing stones on a remote Scottish hillside and find herself transported back 200 years to the time of the Highland Rising in support of Bonnie Prince Charlie, the story rips along with enough action to keep you turning the pages; but as I read I became increasingly aware of a strong thread of sadism running throughout the book. The repeated accounts of beatings and floggings and other forms of torture climax in the truly horrendous account of the treatment meted out to Jamie, the main male protagonist, (I hesitate to call him the hero for reasons which will become apparent) by Randall, the villain of the piece. Admittedly, Randall is a sadist and is portrayed as such, but he is not the only character in the book to take pleasure in inflicting pain. Jamie is quite capable of that himself.

One of the passages that I found most disturbing is the one where he beats Claire, the heroine, savagely and then rapes her. It was not his action, so much as her response that I found hard to believe. Perhaps a woman of that period and that society might have accepted that that was the natural way of things, but Claire grew up in the 20th century. She does not have the psychological profile of a needy woman who returns again and again to her abuser. She is intelligent and tough minded and spent the war years as an army nurse. To my mind, for such a woman treatment like that would be unforgivable. Yet Claire not only accepts that probably she ‘deserved’ such punishment, she can’t wait to get the man back into her bed. True, she has no option but to submit at the time. He is stronger than she is and she depends on him for her survival, but I find it hard to believe that she could continue to desire and, in fact, to love him. So much so that when she has the opportunity to return to her own time and the civilised husband whom she is also supposed to love, she chooses instead to stay with Jamie. More disturbing still is the passage in which Jamie cheerfully recounts how is father used to beat him as a child and apparently proposes to treat any children he may have with Claire in the same way – and she seems to accept this.

I also found my credulity increasingly stretched by the superhuman resilience exhibited by both protagonists. Again and again they suffer physical and psychological damage which would reduce normal human beings to puddles of helpless PTSD, but within hours they have recovered enough to move on to the next adventure. I finally ceased to believe when Claire wrestles a ravening wolf and kills it with her bare hands. Admittedly, his suffering at Randall’s hands does bring Jamie to the brink of collapse, so much so that he longs for death, but after some unorthodox treatment at Claire’s hands, which involves forcing him to relive the trauma, he bounces back and is soon ready to make love to her again.

It is this conflation of sex and pain that I found so distasteful and I find it hard to understand why apparently so many women in this age of feminism enjoy these books. This is, of course, the first book in a series. I shall not be reading the sequels.