For our next Book Club meeting on Wednesday 28th September at 3.00pm, we will be chatting about Diana Gabaldon’s best-selling Outlander (2015), a novel which critics have described as ‘Scotland’s answer to Game of Thrones.’
A deft blend of romance and historical fiction with a dash of time travel, above all, Outlander is a terrific story. The novel’s vibrant, engaging characters bounce off the page and draw you in to their hectic, unpredictable world.
Our heroine and narrator is Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser, an English army nurse on a second honeymoon in the Scottish Highlands with a husband she’s barely seen courtesy of the Second World War. Thanks to the mysterious properties of Craigh na Dun – a kind of Scottish Stonehenge – she’s transported to 1743 and meets the charismatic “red-heided” aristocrat Jamie.
It’s a perilous time in the Highlands as the final Jacobite rebellion gathers momentum leading up to the 1746 Battle of Culloden and defeat by government forces. Suspicion, redcoats and torture abound. Claire has intelligence, wit and 20th-century attitudes that puzzle and disturb many 18th-century clansmen who tend to think she’s a spy or a witch. She’s an enigma with the wrong accent, but Jamie is mesmerised by this Sassenach – the not-entirely-friendly term the Scots had for the English.
Most romances end with a wedding or a betrothal, but Jamie and Claire’s arranged nuptials are necessary for survival. He’s an outlaw with a price on his head, she’s trying to live long enough to get back to her husband and the 20th century. As an outsider, Claire is our guide to Highlander culture, and the superstitions and beliefs of the time. There are plenty of juicy details regarding transitioning to pre-electricity Scottish life, from beatings to bedbugs and dealing with enormous skirts. We’re privy to the workings of an 18th-century castle, and how a laird maintained rule.
There is humour too: at one point Claire reflects on the oddity of having a lovely time “sitting on a rock in a Scottish pool, listening to love songs, with a large dead fish in my lap”. Jamie’s dry humour is evident too as he observes that “bein’ flogged is not verra pleasant”. Gallant Jamie always wants to help others – except the English – though he makes an exception for his Sassenach.
Claire is no whimpering damsel in distress or passive maiden. In the space of a few days she glimpses the Loch Ness monster, is set upon by a rival clan, fights off a would-be rapist and nearly drowns. She can treat a war wound, break a wolf’s neck and even stab a man when she has to. It’s not long before her and Jamie will kill for each other and their bond becomes the throbbing heart of the novel.
At nearly 900 pages, this is a chunky book that canters along like a verra frisky Highlander’s pony. Fans of the excellent first TV series of Outlander will find the Jamie and Claire they adored on screen will entrance them equally on the page. Emily Nussbaum in The New Yorker was talking about the adaptation when she said it’s “gripping precisely because it takes sex so seriously, treating it as life’s deepest joy and its most terrifying risk”, but a similar claim could be made for the novel, which presents the physical bond between Jamie and Claire as an ecstatic expression of transcendent love.
An academic writer before she turned to fiction, Outlander’s American author Diana Gabaldon was inspired by a “fetching” young man in a kilt on an episode of Doctor Who. She infuses her prose with evocative imagery, elevating what might have been melodrama in lesser hands. When Jamie and Claire stay in a monastery, Gabaldon describes the “hushed exultation” of the library, where “cherished volumes were all singing soundlessly within their covers”.
This is a novel of big emotions, big conflicts, and big reconciliations. Jamie’s passionate devotion is fuelled by courage and a reckless nobility, but this is an adventure told from a rare female perspective. Claire is one sassy Sassenach, and Outlander is a braw read.
We highly recommend sinking your teeth into Outlander and booking onto our next free Book Club session, which will take place on Wednesday 28th September at 3.00pm. Even if you don’t manage to read the book in time, feel free to come along anyway to listen in or join the discussion as much as you like.
A former theatre and comedy critic, Carolyn O’ Donnell was a senior journalist at The Times and has written extensively on arts and culture. Her travel writing has appeared in The Telegraph, The Daily Mail, and many airline magazines. In 2021 she won the Christopher Hewitt Award for fiction.