The Outlander opens with Mary Boulton, the widow, running
headlong through the wilderness. Around her the darkness morphs into human
shape, as Mary hears voices and sees abhorrent visions. Somewhere in the murky
distance are her angry brothers-in-law, large and dangerous. She's a widow by
her own hand, and they are pursuing her, anxious for retribution. The haunting
and spine-tingling qualities of the opening pages grab the reader in a chokehold
and refuse to let go.
Along Mary's escape route, she meets various eccentrics who mirror a person from her past. For example, moments or conversations with Reverend Bonnycastle remind Mary of her father, which prompts a flashback to her earlier life. This mirror-like approach allows for the reader to learn about Mary's past in measured doses. The subtle disclosure serves two purposes: primarily, it maintains a sense of mystery and suspense around Mary's character; and secondly, it positions her past experiences, tragedies, and slights in the frame of her present. Mary is running from a violent act, but she is also running from other pain and sadness in her life. As Mary flees, and as she meets different people, she, and the reader, slowly come to terms with the weightiness of her despair, the cause of her madness, and the ways in which she might recover. Her desperate journey, from madness to self-awareness, from hunger to satisfaction, can also be read as a condensed analysis of her existence, a journey that allows her to leave forever the girl who was driven to kill her husband.
Mary Boulton's intense psychological transformation is augmented by Adamson's crystalline prose. Nothing is too miniscule for Adamson's notice: the mud at the bottom edge of Mary's hem, the glint in the brothers-in-laws' animal-like eyes, the color of the sky, the smell of the trees. Each sentence and paragraph is worth the contemplation of any great poem. The pacing is deliberate and perfect. Adamson's dark, yet delicate descriptions take this story from mere western escape story to a gothic fairytale. Mary's deepening madness, complete with hallucinated ghosts, plus the spare elements of romance, add to this perception.
The Outlander is a dynamic piece of historical fiction; a novel that allows us to understand life in 1903, but in clean, modern language. Mary's crime is heinous, but her reasons for committing it are not. Considering the time-period and its regular oppression of women, her murderous act is understandable. Adamson pays careful attention to details that make the setting and time of her story believable. Her dialogue, sparse and pointed, hits the ear as consistent with the way people in that period must have talked.
Ultimately, this tale of flight can be read for many reasons its language, a woman's drive towards independence, a suspense-filled tale of flight, a historical drama and it will stand up to every one.
About the Author
Gil Adamson is the author of two books of poetry, Primitive (1991) and Ashland (2003), and a collection of short stories, Help Me, Jacques Cousteau (1995). The Outlander is her first novel and was 10 years in the making. The gothic elements in the novel stem from Adamson's love of the X-Files. She wrote a fan book, Mulder, It's Me with her sister, about the series' female star, Gillian Anderson. The idea for The Outlander started with an image in her head of "a young woman, dressed in black, running like hell." She started to write poems about the woman, but found the form too limiting. She began a larger piece, and this 'seed' image informs the opening pages of the novel.
Gil Adamson is seventh generation Canadian. Facts about her family - a homesteader whose name was Bonnycastle, like the Reverend in the novel, and a grandfather who was a coal mine operator in Edmonton - appear in the novel. Her many travels through the western hinterlands of Canada and the United States helped her to focus on the western setting. Gil Adamson lives in Toronto, Canada with fellow writer Kevin Connelly. More at Quill & Quire.
This review was originally published in May 2008, and has been updated for the June 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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