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Diana Gabaldon – Outlander

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Make certain the period you are researching was peaceful…

Publisher: Arrow (Random House)
Pages: 851
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-75137-1
First Published: 1st June 1991
Date Reviewed: 8th January 2019
Rating: 3.5/5

Reunited after WWII, Claire and Frank travel from Oxfordshire to the Scottish Highlands. It’s part second honeymoon, part research trip to find out more about Frank’s six-times great-grandfather who was a British officer for the army in the 1740s. Early one morning, the couple visit an ancient stone circle to witness a pagan ritual and it’s an interesting enough event, but when Claire decides to spend more time at the circle and touches the centre stone, she is whisked inside it; upon waking she is once more in the stone circle but there’s a battle going on outside between a band of kilted men and a small English patrol of Red Coats.

Outlander is an epic historical fantasy romance1 that takes a 1940s nurse back in time to the period her husband is researching. Creating for Claire a new life, including a second marriage, and written from her perspective, it stays exclusively in the 1740s.

The first in what is currently a series of eight books with another in the works, Outlander is a lengthy work, and mostly focused on the relationship Claire has with Highlander Jamie. This is to say that while it is a time travel and includes a lot of historical information, the romantic element is paramount and thus the aspect of fantasy far less used.

The history here is very good; whilst not always completely accurate, and not always developed where you might expect it to have been, Gabaldon’s research is evident. Often the reason any one section is slow – there are a fair few of these sections in the first half of the book – is due to the author’s focus on either information or the wish to detail the day-to-day of Claire’s new life as she settles in (or, rather, settles in whilst still planning to escape back to the stones). There is little info-dumping in the book – Gabaldon includes information well – and apart from the few issues with language the history in the book is enjoyable.

In terms of the language it’s 50/50 between highly believable conversation (word choice and phrasing for the time periods) and not so well written in terms of grammar and general phrasing. There are some sentences that use modern phrasing from across the pond that likely skipped through unnoticed, but overall Claire’s descriptions read well. There are a few Gaelic words and Scots words included, the former not necessarily meant to be understood, the latter easy enough to pick up in a short amount of time.

Looking at descriptions, it could well be said that the book would have been better had it been written in the third person. Claire isn’t particularly compelling – in fact she’s often downright irritating – and because Gabaldon sticks to her perspective, lots of elements you might have expected to be included are very short on the ground. Claire doesn’t often compare her new life to her old one or find any difficulties with it; apart from the times when she decides she wants to escape what is otherwise being developed by the author as a comfortable, romantic, new life, and apart from the handful of times when she knows the medical treatment she is giving to a patient won’t actually help, she doesn’t she think of Frank, the 1940s, or modernity anywhere near what you would expect.

Due to all this, you never once hear about how Frank is doing back in the 1940s – once Claire time travels, he drops out of the story, to be referred to only in thought. This means that the development of Claire’s relationship with Jamie is a lot easier. Another literary device comes in the form of Jamie’s lack of sexual experience, which neatly side-steps the requirement to discuss STIs, which would surely have otherwise entered Claire’s medical mind.

Romance, but mainly the sexual aspect, is a huge part of the book and generally included ‘just because’ rather than to advance the story. The book is essentially an erotic romance, extremely explicit in places, rarely leaving anything to the imagination. As the book continues, it goes further than consensual sex, with scenes of dubious consent, and graphic, violent, rape (the non-sexual violence is also extreme, and there comes a point near the end when it could be called intolerable2 (and means that something minor in terms of story but crucial to the historical context is left out3).

For this then, then, it is difficult to say that Outlander is a general romance, and it’s not only the concentration on lust at the expense of love but the fact of perspective to blame here. Is there romance in the book? Yes, and a fair amount, but given Claire’s indecision, the romance is mostly in Jamie’s court where development and content is concerned. With no time for Jamie’s perspective, this all has to be filtered through dialogue. (Jamie’s perspective, and more historical context, would have helped explain the clash of cultures that forms one of the common criticisms of the book, which cites a man’s punishment of his wife.) The chemistry between the characters is evident, but not portrayed as well as it could have been, especially as Jamie has no real competition due to Frank’s exit stage right.

Outlander definitely has its good – excellent, in fact – moments, and there are patches of terrific humour to be found as well as a steady sense of duty, family, and kin, but it does spend a lot of time on moments that do not move the narrative forward and on things that don’t inform the premise of the story (there are well over 40 sex scenes in the book, both fully consensual and not) and would have been better edited down by a few hundred pages; suffice to say that when Gabaldon returns from the bedroom to the narrative, the effect on proceedings is immediate, and the story continues well. And the positives do out-way the negatives.

Footnotes

1 The author has noted both that as she was writing the book for herself she didn’t limit what she included (Gabaldon, n.d) and that the book has been shelved in shops under a vast variety of genres (Gabaldon, 2016).
2 On page 735 of the novel, Gabaldon does say the following, through Claire, which goes a fair way towards explaining the reason for the inclusion:

One never stops to think what underlies romance. Tragedy and terror, transmuted by time. Add a little art in the telling and voilà! a stirring romance, to make the blood run fast and maidens sigh.

3 Due to the focus on violence, Christmas comes and goes, indeed the days are spent at a Catholic monastery, with absolutely no mention of it by anyone.

Online References

Gabaldon, Diana (n.d.) The Outlander Series, Diana Gabaldon.com, accessed 9th January 2019
Gabaldon, Diana (2016) Outlander, Diana Gabaldon.com, accessed 9th January 2019

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Sylvia Plath – The Bell Jar

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When things on the outside seem to be going well but they are actually not.

Publisher: Faber & Faber
Pages: 234
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-571-22616-0
First Published: 14th January 1963
Date Reviewed: 10th September 2018
Rating: N/A (4.5/5 in usual terms of literary enjoyment and study)

Esther has always been an A grade student. Now, working for a ladies’ magazine in New York during a break, she struggles to get things right, and when she leaves the magazine to go back home she finds she hasn’t been accepted onto the summer course she had planned her holiday around. Along with this, she has a perpetual problem with a set of parents who want her to marry their son; she dislikes the boy and his pompous attitude. Somewhat related to this, she is afraid of what sex can mean for a woman, as well as annoyed at the double standards for women and men. Lastly, she misses her father. This all comes to a head and she beings to feel that life isn’t worth living.

The Bell Jar, set in the 1950s when the author was at university, is Plath’s famous novel, a book that is highly autobiographical and succeeds in being both enjoyable on a literary level, and in giving you a lot of information about Plath and her struggles with clinical depression. (The title references the feeling the character has of living in a bell jar.) Published a month before her death, the book has inevitably been viewed not only in the context of itself and Plath’s younger years, but in the context of her death. And it is hard to write about it without referring to her. (It’s also difficult not to talk about the ‘plot’ extensively, though I have tried to leave as much as possible out of this review.)

This is a dark book. There are times when Plath is graphic in her descriptions of what Esther does in terms of self-harm, and the various ways she considers killing herself. There is a lot about the hospitals and treatments she undergoes, things we would now consider barbaric. Yet there is also a distinct lightness to the text, most prominent in the first handful of chapters but also eked out even until the end of the book, where Plath, whether consciously or not, lifts the text from the darkness. It is in these sections that her talent most often shines through, however the times in which you can see another reason for her depression rearing its head are also full of thoughts and the phrasing of those thoughts, that show further literary talent.

Two chief areas in this regard are female agency and sex. Plath writes her thoughts about the double standard that applied to men and women, using the story of her forced sort-of relationship with Buddy Willard (either largely or somewhat true to life) when he tells her he’s slept with women, and she later muses on the fact that society would expect her to be a virgin if/when she married but that that isn’t fair. Following this she looks at the way a woman would have a baby and her life would change forever but a man could be a father and be the same person as before.

I also remembered Buddy Willard saying in a sinister, knowing way that after I had children I would feel differently, I wouldn’t want to write poems any more. So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterwards you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state.

With these and other subjects, namely her potential change in career prospects and her memories of her father, The Bell Jar gives you a fair grounding in why Plath/Esther was depressed, and although it begins and ends at university, it shows the sorts of thoughts and feelings that would have taken Plath further in her writing career and added to the problems she found in her marriage.

It’s worth reading up about Plath’s life in context with what is in the book – for example the shock treatments included are actually taken from the work of Mary Jane Ward, whose semi-autobiographical book The Snake Pit featured them1, as well as the relationships she had with Dick Norton and Richard Sassoon that influenced Buddy and Irwin.

Plath had the book published under a pseudonym as she didn’t want her mother to know she had written in, worrying about her reaction, but whilst there is dislike, there’s empathy there, too:

Hadn’t my own mother told me that as soon as she and my father left Reno on their honeymoon – my father had been married before, so he needed a divorce – my father said to her, ‘Whew, that’s a relief, now we can stop pretending and be ourselves’? – and from that day on my mother never had a minutes’ peace.

In terms of study, whilst most of the book relates directly to Plath, there is enough about society in general to take away from it, and due to Plath’s work and career, a fair amount about literature and poetry, albeit that names have been changed (they’re easy enough to find out). There’s also Plath’s use of terms we would now consider racist that set the book firmly in its time and show how terminology would be used even when there was no aim to be actively discriminatory.

As much as it’s an autobiography The Bell Jar is also a real work of literature, with so much attention to detail having been put into it. It is absolutely worth reading, just be cautious of timing – whilst there is a lot of true enjoyment to be had, and whilst it’s quite short, it can and will take a toll on you whilst you are reading it.

Footnotes

1 From Wikipedia, date unknown (a): ‘Plath later stated that she had seen reviews of The Snake Pit and believed the public wanted to see “mental health stuff,” so she deliberately based details of Esther’s hospitalization on the procedures and methods outlined in Ward’s book.’ (But it seems Plath experienced similar treatments herself – see Wikipedia n.d. b.)

Online References

Wikipedia (n.d. -a) The Bell Jar, Wikipedia.org, accessed 10th September 2018.
Wikipedia (n.d. -b) Sylvia Plath, Wikipedia.org, accessed 10th September 2018.

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Claire Fuller – Bitter Orange

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When friendships sour.

Publisher: Fig Tree (Penguin)
Pages: 274
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-241-34182-7
First Published: 2nd August 2018
Date Reviewed: 30th July 2018
Rating: 4/5

When a historic estate is purchased in 1969, the new owner asks Frances to stay at the house for a time and create a report on a bridge in the grounds. Upon arrival, she meets Cara and Peter, a couple who are there so that Peter can report on the house itself. Cara’s moods change quickly, her stories fantastical, and Peter sometimes seems overwhelmed by her actions. Staying in the attic above the dilapidated rooms Cara and Peter have been assigned, Frances finds a Judas Hole that gives her further information about their strange relationship. The couple captivate her, Peter in particular, but as she starts to find her rooms amiss, she wonders what is going on.

Bitter Orange is Fuller’s very fine third novel. It’s a tale that balances the aspects of a great summer read with a fantastically subtle suspense thread that may well surprise you at the end but in a good, literary, manner.

The book revolves around Frances’ acquaintance and interactions with Cara and Peter but particularly the former. Told in the past tense, we see an older, very ill, Frances looking back on her life to the time when she was impressionable, feeling grown up but with mistakes and misunderstandings she was yet to mature out of, and easy to win over. Coming across at times as somewhat of an unreliable narrator, Frances’ younger thoughts of the couple can be at odds – though not too much, which is where the ‘somewhat’ of the ‘unreliable narrator’ comes in – with what the reader sees under the surface.

Suffice it to say the characterisation is very good. There is a lot of depth in Frances as a character – you see a lot of her personality, insecurities, and Fuller spends a good amount of time showing the effects of Frances’ childhood on her adulthood. Cara and Peter are well drawn, too, and only held back from being easier to read due to us knowing them through Frances’ understanding of them; Cara the self-described Italian who creates melodrama in church, tells stories of death, and makes awful threats, and Peter who, seen though Frances’ rose-tinted eyes which may or may not tell the truth, is constantly trying to keep the peace, stop Cara going off the rails, and saving himself.

Woven in carefully, the effects of Frances’ childhood are excellently explained. The older Frances speaks to the reader (or to herself – she is talking because an old acquaintance is asking about her life but whether she’s actually voicing the thoughts are not always known) of the emotional and psychological abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother – the major reason for her lack of understanding when it comes to reading the personalities and interactions of others and making the correct choices. It’s a sobering story that highlights how abuse that is often not recognised can impact someone’s sense of self so fundamentally and for years and years after the abuse has finished, defining the novel in a quiet way.

Set in August and published in August, late summer is a great time to read this sun-drenched book. It has all the breezy laziness of a heat-glazed day and all the fantastic history and surprises of a good historical fiction, the setting of the 1960s interlaced with stories and ideas of a house from an earlier period, with spooky goings on that would be right at home in a ghost story.

The fruits may not taste very good but the packaging is brilliant; Bitter Orange is a great novel that rewards its reader handsomely with luscious writing and literary pleasures… which is just as well because by the time you come to the end you’re going to want something sweet you help you mull over the final revelations.

I received this book for review.

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Valeria Luiselli – Faces In The Crowd

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Stories can haunt you.

Publisher: Granta
Pages: 148
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-847-08507-8
First Published: 2011; 2nd May 2013 in English
Date Reviewed: 18th June 2018
Rating: 4/5

Original language: Spanish
Original title: Los ingrávidos (The Weightless)
Translated by: Christina MacSweeney

A woman – generally unnamed but briefly described as Dolores – working as a writer and translator in Mexico, struggles to find Latin authors to put forward as candidates for publication to her boss; she finds the work of a poet – Giberto Owen – in the library and starts to construct a tale of discovering old translations by a famous translator. As she writes the translations herself she tells us the story of the novel she is writing, which appears to be very similar to her own life.

Faces In The Crowd is an incredibly literary book that, as Luiselli has her character write, is ‘a horizontal novel told vertically’ and ‘a vertical novel, told horizontally’ and ‘A novel that has to be told from the outside in order to be read from within’; in essence, this is a book in a book that’s possibly in another book that’s possibly not actually fiction at all… but then is, of course, fiction.

If that sounds terribly confusing that’s because it is – Faces In The Crowd is a great read but it can and most likely will do a number on your literary sanity. This is most likely an intended part of the experience. With Luiselli’s concept of ghosts and the reality and fiction meddling together and modifying each other – the author (Luiselli) even has her character write such a thing, possibly with the idea of helping her (Luiselli again) reader’s work it out – there are a lot of hints but their core meaning can be difficult to place against the text.

This novel in a novel, then, is formed of both Dolores’ home life and her work, and she writes about her home life as it happens, thus blending the two together, and goes so far as to call her translation work another life. Luiselli uses the concept of vignettes to separate both ideas and storylines but only loosely – one of the best easy-to-understand aspects of the novel is the way the different vignettes become associated as the narrative continues:

On Sundays, my husband, the children and I listen to Rockdrigo and eat pancakes for breakfast. But not this Sunday. My husband is angry. Through my own carelessness, he’s read some more of these pages. He asks how much is fiction and how much fact.

*

During that period, I took to telling lies.

As a further example, too long to quote, on the page directly following this, Dolores says that her husband got a postcard from a woman ‘in Philly’. In the next vignette, Dolores is just back from Philly, and in the one following that, women contact their first loves and ask to meet in Philly. Later the husband has to go to Philly… but later he, or his ‘ghost’ is still at home.

‘Ghost’ is the word here: with the various narratives gradually moving together, the concept Luiselli introduced early on is unpacked and made easier to understand. There is one ‘ghost’ who starts us off, and that is Gilberto Owen.

This is where we encounter the historical literary aspect of the book: Dolores’ chosen Latin poet is a real Mexican poet from the 1800s – this reviewer could not find out enough about him to be able to say whether Luiselli’s narrative for him is fact or fiction but there are hints as to poetry movements and concepts. Through Owen’s life – whether fictional in terms of Dolores’ ‘translations’ or simply fictional in terms of the novel – we meet the likes of Ezra Pound and Nella Larsen. (Luiselli has taken her title from Pound’s poem, In a Station of a Metro.) The use of fellow poets and writers aids the narrative, both in terms of real life happenings and the mere concepts that follow them, for example it could be said that Luiselli’s writing is styled rather similarly to Imagism – Pound’s school of poetry.

There isn’t much character development here – the plot and the style is the focus – but again, that adds to the narrative. Everyone sounds rather like everyone else, and the book becomes more an ode to interpreting literature and the work of historical writers rather than a book to enjoy. But the writing is very likeable and it’s evident that the translation has placed more prominence on understanding and getting the active point across instead of making words and phrases align which mean you get a firm idea of what the original is (would be) like.

Faces In The Crowd is a tough read – you’ll look at the thin stack of pages and ample white space thinking you’ll spend an hour or so in literary enjoyment and then find you’ve been there for a long time and still not finished; this book requires more attention than an ancient classic. But being able to say you’ve read it is satisfying in itself and if you’ve learned a fair amount about literary constructs and literary people in that time then all the better. If there’s anything else to be said about it it’s that it perhaps goes on too long, which does indeed sound ridiculous.

Perhaps it’s right that words contain nothing, or almost nothing. That their content is, at the very least, variable.

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Claire Fuller – Swimming Lessons

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Only go with the flow to a certain extent.

Publisher: Fig Tree (Penguin)
Pages: 294
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-241-25215-4
First Published: 26th January 2017
Date Reviewed: 1st May 2018
Rating: 5/5

When Gil sees his wife standing outside the bookshop, he runs after her, causing himself a fair injury in the process. Daughter Nan isn’t amused – Ingrid disappeared many years ago when she and her sister were children – and she’s very likely dead. But Flora sides with his father and as Gil returns home from hospital the sisters look after him, together with Richard, the man Flora had been sleeping with but had split up with, in not so many words, before she left to meet Nan. The family house is full of books which are stacked on every surface, a few layers deep – Gil has an obsession with finding secondhand books that hold receipts, letters, and marginalia. Mixed in with this story is that of Ingrid’s version of her marriage to Gil, told in letters, that she had slipped in between the pages of various relevant titles.

Swimming Lessons is an utterly sensational novel of truths and lies, mystery and a spot of magical realism, and regret, all held together by the theme of literature and writing. Ingrid’s tale begins at university where she studied English and met Gil, her lecturer. Their story moves on from there, with Gil’s friends warning Ingrid about Gil’s personality and the university putting its foot down. The chapters set in the present abound with literary ideas, criticism, and general conversation.

“Writing does not exist unless there is someone to read it, and each reader will take something different from a novel, from a chapter, from a line. A book becomes a living thing only when it interacts with a reader.”

“…often the only way to see what a reader thought, how they lived when they were reading, is to examine what they left behind. All these words… are about the reader. The specific individual – man, woman, or child – who left something of themselves behind.”

This means that whilst the subject of the book, or, rather, subjects, can get pretty dark, the wonders of the text keep you in a positive state. The darker side of the novel – Ingrid’s revelations, which are effectively revelations to the reader, and the question as to what happened to Ingrid – are written superbly; Fuller’s writing style, plotting, and subsequent literary execution are absolutely marvelous to the point that the book is just as good to read for its prose as it is for the way it unravels its subjects. A good use of the present day setting and decades past round out the writing.

As for the characters they are very well drawn and feel far from fictional. Fuller references I Capture The Castle, and there are, in Ingrid’s love of the beach and writing of it, potential allusions to The Awakening (‘potential’ due to the book not being referenced). In the idea of Ingrid having been lost to the sea there is a minor reference to Virginia Woolf. The inter-textual nature of the book enhances both the atmosphere and the characterisation and also leading you to think that situations may match those in the older novels (which can be the case but not always). Gil has a writing room to which no one else is allowed entry. Flora is often naked. Ingrid found her changed life difficult. Like Fuller’s previous book, Our Endless Numbered Days, Swimming Lessons looks a little at neglectful parenting and favouritism.

This book pairs joyous reader escapism with some uncomfortable subjects. It is a good idea to go in prepared for a blunt look at what can be hidden under the surface, of parenting, of marriage, and then give your all to it. Because it’s a triumph; not the sort of characters you might want to spend real time with but the book itself, everything about it, oh heck yes.

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