Welcome to today’s read of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. Unlike previous novels I’ve shared on this blog, this book is not as directly speculative; however, by the very nature of time travel in the story, it falls within the speculative vein. Further, as the new series of Outlander has recently begun on Starz, it seemed fitting to do a read of the novel.
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This story begins with a brief text, not even a prologue, but a commentary on disappearances. As it’s so short and I want to break down how and why it’s effective, I’ll quote the whole text:
People disappear all the time. Ask any policeman. Better yet, ask a journalist. Disappearances are bread-and-butter to journalists.
Young girls run away from home. Young children stray from their parents and are never seen again. Housewives reach the end of their tether and take the grocery money and a taxi to the station. International financiers change their names and vanish into the smoke of imported cigars.
Many of the lost will be found, eventually, dead or alive. Disappearances, after all, have explanations.
Writer Comments: A haunting opening to be sure. Before I begin on the text itself, take note that this is given on a page with no number. Page one doesn’t begin until the actual start of chapter one. It is as if this little aside were as disconnected and unplaced as the people who disappear.
So why does this aside work and why include it?
Let’s begin with the first sentence, for it is, after all, the book’s opening line, which we know is crucial.
“People disappear all the time.”
At first glance, it may appear a simple, common statement. As of yet, we have no character, no setting, not even a true event with which to connect. This seems contrary to most advice on the subject of first lines. However, Gabaldon uses a different technique to snare reader interest: the unsettling of expectations. Disappearances, after all, whether our car keys or a beloved family member, are disturbing. Yet Gabaldon places them in an unexpected context, as normal and common. This is a highly uncomfortable thought, and the need to soothe ourselves drives us to read further. After all, the author didn’t mean it the way it sounds, did she?
Then Gabaldon uses short, punchy sentences, all given in a conversational tone for the remainder of the paragraph. Short sentences are a common tool to inspire tension. So she hooks us with discomfort and draws us in with a growing sense of unease.
Her next paragraph gets into the real motion of the aside. We can picture all these characters fading away. A young girl slipping out her window a night. A child looking up and realizing his parents are gone, the crowd thick and impassable. A housewife frantic, snatching the little stash of cash, then glancing out the train window once before turning to a life yet unknown. The financier in his pressed suit with smoke curling up around his head in a foreign city too remote to ever be found. They are haunting images. We’ve known or heard of or feared similar things, and thus Gabaldon further plays on our unsettled state, adding to the disquiet.
Additionally, in the second paragraph, she adds in motion via the acts of each person vanishing. Each builds on the other, becoming more complex in structure or ideas until, at last, the end leaves us with the lingering scent of cigars. This works like a wheel rotating, going slow at first, but quickly increasing in speed, thus rapidly drawing us into the story.
Then, in the third paragraph, Gabaldon reassures us. Though people disappear quite often, they are usually found. Yet she leaves that thread of disturbance, for sometimes they are found dead. But note how she puts “alive” last, leaving us with the hope of life rather than the macabre death. And she lastly reassures us that disappearances have explanations.
Then she yanks the carpet out from under us with one simple word offset by itself, “Usually.” With that one word, she sets up the entire story and prepares us with a sense of urgency. What does she mean by “Usually”? Who disappears that we must be concerned about? How can their be no explanation? What danger is lurking just around the next page?
So we turn to the next page to begin the real story, already unsettled, already craving reassurance. And there you have why Gabaldon includes this brief aside, to snare our attention, to leave us wanting, to set the tone for the rest of the story.
Chapter 1: A New Beginning
Summary: Claire and her husband Frank are spending a holiday in the Scottish Highlands at a bed and breakfast. They were married nearly eight years before but quickly torn apart from each other when World War II began. Now, before Frank takes a position at Oxford as a history professor, they’re attempting to reconnect and rebuild their marriage.
However, Mrs. Baird, the bed and breakfast’s landlady has a certain dirty fascination with the couple, frequently hoovering outside their bedroom door at strategic times in the morning. Thus, this gives them another reason to wonder if, perhaps, they should have chosen a more riotous location for their second honeymoon. Between Mrs. Baird’s snooping and the Scottish favorite indoor sport of gossip, their time has not been quite as private as they could have wished.
On this particular morning, Frank is going to meet a reverend to see old baptismal records, which he hopes will help in his quest for genealogical information on his family. Claire, on the other hand, who has no interest in family history whatsoever, determines that, upon hearing Frank mention that Gaelic has no word for undergarment, she should find a man in a kilt and ask if he, indeed, wears anything underneath. To which, Frank replies:
“Well, do try not to get arrested, Claire.” page 4
Writer Comments: This is, for all intents and purposes, a rather mundane scene, yet it has a certain humor and draw to it that makes it difficult to put down.
First of all, the opening line plays off the tension built in the introductory material:
“It wasn’t a very likely place for disappearances, at least at first glance.” page 1
Disappearances are apparently a theme in this book, and the unlikely place for the one we’re about to witness fits eerily with the idea that not all have explanations. At once, Gabaldon continues her initial thread into the first chapter, thus connecting them, but she quickly shifts into the meat of the scene: a Scottish bed and breakfast with a snooping landlady and an English couple trying to reconnect after the tragedies of war.
The premise contains plenty of tension and interesting contrasts. However, the scene itself is quite domestic and simple. A couple waking up in the morning with the standard quiet moments of life: dressing, reviewing the upcoming events of the day, and reexamining their choice of vacation spot. It’s light and amusing, a stark contrast to the introduction’s gloom.
So why does it work?
First of all, Gabaldon has already set us up for calamity. We know a disappearance is coming, but we don’t yet know who or how. She tosses us into an idyllic scene, throwing our emotions once more in an unexpected direction. The contrast adds to our curiosity.
However, none of that would work if the dialogue were not riveting. The conversation between Frank and Claire has a dynamic sense, a feel that they enjoy each other, even the parts of each other that they don’t understand. The humor and lightness and the real feel of personality drives the dialogue and the scene.
Further, Gabaldon adds undertones of disquiet and pain. Claire and Frank have been trying for a child and have yet been sadly disappointed. The war haunts them, a small shadow in the corner of the scene, but there nonetheless. And finally, Gabaldon includes their slight disappointment in their vacation spot, the gossiping Scots, an insulting tone from the barman the night before, and a finicky landlady who frequently admonishes Claire on her less than pristine appearance
In fact, the scene is quite complex, despite its initial appearance of simplicity.
Summary: Claire finds no kilted Scotsmen when she goes out shopping that day. Instead, gossiping Scottish housewives fill the square and stores. The shelves too are bursting with things that were scarce or completely absent during the war.
We get a brief history of Claire’s past. Her parents died in a car crash when she was five, and she came into the care of her archaeologist uncle, who, when she refused to attend boarding school, whisked her off to one archaeological site after another. She learned to read and write through archaeological journals and do all sorts of camp tasks improper for a gently bread young lady.
Then she met Frank, who had come to her uncle to clarify a point of Egyptian religion as it related to French philosophy. But even after marrying Frank, she moved constantly as he had conferences and engagements all over the place. Then the war came. Frank went to officer’s training and she to nurse training.
Though she has no true home of her own yet, not until they reach Oxford, she impulsively purchases a set of vases.
Writer Comments: This scene is purely backstory with one little tag on the end, which I’ll get to shortly.
Backstory is usually discouraged in the first chapter. Actually, it’s discouraged in the first several chapters of a book. Backstory slows the tale down. It takes away tension and can easily lead to reader boredom. However, if you must include backstory this early on, Gabaldon does it about as well as it can be done.
First, she keeps it short. The backstory in its entirely is barely a page. Further, it’s given at a quick pace with plenty of unique details and sensory description. It isn’t just a recitation of facts, but vivid glimpses into years gone by.
Additionally, Gabaldon frames the backstory with a subtle but significant element of Claire’s character. She is, in many ways, isolated from the life she desires, one of domestic bliss with a baby and a husband, one with a nice house that she stays in long enough to build a true home. At no point does Gabaldon directly state any of this, but it’s heavily implied. The beginning of the frame details Claire’s separateness from this life. The end reveals her desire to grasp a new life through the purchase of the vases.
Summary: Claire and Frank meet up and return to Mrs. Baird’s; however, on the doorstep, they find a large splotch of blood. At first, Claire is horrified, but Frank quickly discerned from the spot of blood on every doorstep on the street, that no ax-murderer is at work but a local ritual to sanctify the houses. In this case, rather than adhering to ancient custom and sacrificing a human to then bury under the foundation, the blood comes from a black cock.
They join the rest of the village at the pub. Frank gets drawn into a lengthy discussion on religion and pagan practices with the Vicar, and Claire is introduced to Mr. Crook, a local plant expert, who agrees to show her the rarer local plants the next morning as she herself studies botany.
That evening, a storm is brewing, and Frank goes for yet another visit to a fellow obsessor of history. Claire elects to stay in because, the last time she visited this particular gentlemen, she accidentally burned herself on the teapot, dropped it in his lap, and unleashed a particularly unfortunate oath she learned from the Yanks during the war.
Writer Comments: This scene accomplishes a number of things all at once. First, it establishes the color of the region with its folklore and pagan practices. It also sets up the fact that Claire, for all her attempts to be genteel, is far from a proper lady. It also contains humor and provides a little historical background so that, presumably, the reader can be fully engulfed in the story’s world and prepared for events yet to come.
However, Gabaldon is careful about how she portrays the historical background. Frank is, primarily, a mouthpiece for her to give these facts, but she makes it more tolerable by giving us a viewpoint character, Claire, who finds them rather tedious. Therefore, if we readers find them tedious also, we have a sympathetic listener in Claire. If we find them interesting, we can look at Claire as we look at our own friends who roll their eyes at our gushing recitations of fascinating historical facts. Further, Gabaldon gives us historical facts set up with a gruesome scene, the cock’s blood on the step and the concept of people sacrificed and buried under houses. That is, after all, far more interesting than dry dates.
Summary: In preparation for Frank’s return, Claire dresses for bed and tries to do something about her rebellious curls. The electricity in the air from the coming storm makes them crackle every time she tries to brush them. Instead, she settles with putting cologne in her hair, Frank’s favorite scent. The power goes out, and she lights candles all about the room, creating a romantic ambiance. Then Frank rushes in on a gust that blows some of them out, white as though he’s seen a ghost, and in fact, he confesses he may have done just that.
A Scotsman stood, he tells, at the edge of the garden, looking up at Claire through the window. He appeared most disturbed over something, and when Frank tried to ask him if he needed anything, the man whirled away and went up the street. But Frank is certain he should have felt the man brush by him. And then what was most odd occurs to him. Despite the lashing wind, no part of the man’s kilt or plaid stirred, save for the natural rhythm of his steps. Then he vanished into thin air before reaching the corner.
Claire is reluctant to believe in a ghost, but she admits the sighting sounds spooky. Frank asks her if she tended many Scotts in the field hospital during the war. She confesses that she did and mentions with amusement their aversion to needles.
Later that night, as they lie in bed together, the oddity of Frank’s question begins to nag her, and she asks what he meant by it. Reluctantly, Frank confesses that seeing the man staring at her merely made him wonder if there had been someone during the war. It would be natural, he insists, under all the stress and after all that time, if she had found comfort with someone.
This infuriates her, and she nearly kicks him out of the room for such an implication. Slowly, he soothes her. But as she lies down to sleep, she begins to wonder if perhaps Frank had his own assignation in the war. After all, it had been six years, and they’d barely seen each other. And Frank did think of it to ask.
Writer Comments: Much of this chapter involves the female mundanities of a holiday in the Scottish Highlands in 1945. While Gabaldon can string us along with the concern over an impending disappearance and little nuggets of tension, she must leave us with a far more profound problem. Despite their attempts at marital bliss, are Claire and her husband not so well suited? After all, their interests have very little to do with each other, and there is this issue of an implied infidelity, which, like the raging storm outside, might have truly destructive power. Like any adept author, Gabaldon closes her chapter with unresolved tension, for only this will drive us onto the next chapter.
Thank you for joining me for this first part of our read of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. Like all reads of books on this blog, we’ll continue every Monday to draw out the techniques a successful author employs to tell a riveting story. Until then, join me Friday for further forays into the fiction, the speculative, and life.