Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Outlander

By Gil Adamson
Ecco books
389 pages
Reviewed by Elaine Simpson-Long

If I start this review by saying that when I was reading this book I thought of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, I don't want you to get the wrong idea. I'm not being flippant or trying to say that this is a fun buddy book, but those of you who remember this film will recall that the two heroes are being tracked and chased by a band of men who are following their trail with an expert scout. Butch and Sundance have been fairly dismissive and casual about it all and have no worries about their ability to fool them and to get away. Then there comes a moment when a trick to lose them fails and they turn to each other "Hey, who are those guys?" From this moment on the tone of the film changes as they realise that their pursuers are not going to give up, they will never be free of them. And then the film continues until the meet their inevitable fate, one of the great all time movie endings as far as I am concerned.

So, what is the connection?

Mary Boulton is a widow she is nineteen years old and has shot her husband. She runs alone through the Canadian wilderness, fleeing from her two brothers in law who are tracking her down to avenge their dead brother, John.

It was night and dogs came through the trees unleashed and howling. They burst from the cover of the woods and their shadows swam across a moonlight filed......the men appeared. They were wordless, exhausted from running with the dogs, huffling in the dark....the girls scrambled through ditch water and bulrushes, desperate to erase her the moonlight her beautiful face was as hollow as a mask...

She runs to keep ahead of them in the snow and the icy cold and as she struggles alone she is forced to dig deep within herself to survive. Nothing in her upbringing or her sheltered existence has given her the strength of will or purpose to enable her to deal with the tragic and awful situation in which she finds herself, but somehow as the days and weeks pass, Mary finds something buried deep down in her character that enables her to carry on each dreadful suffering day. She meets a recluse living alone in the mountains, The Ridgerunner, who has turned his back on society and exists in his own quiet world. Like her, he is solitary and damaged. They meet, and form a short sharp sexual relationship but he cannot cope with another person and he abandons her. Mary continues on, through immense hardship and suffering and finally finds herself living in a mining town in the wilderness, where she becomes the housekeeper of the Reverend Bonnycastle, another person hiding from himself and his demons.

Mary faces up to her own insecurities and lack of self belief and gradually begins to form a meaningful life for herself when tragedy strikes and the inevitable happens - the two brothers finally track her down. By this time I was quite breathless with wanting to know what was going to happen, how would it end, really I knew deep down that we could not have a standard happy ever after finish, and I found the way the story came to a close, totally satisfactory. Strange, as it is slightly ambiguous and we are left uncertain. I felt a certain sympathy for the relentless pursuit by the brothers and their grief and desire for vengeance but at the same time I wanted Mary to have her chance of a life. So, will she? and will the brothers finally realise that their quest is eating them up and decide to abandon it? We don't know, we can only surmise.
The scenes unfold: the bleak white cold wilderness, the rough and ready squalor and dirt of the mining camp, the scene rolling in your mind's eye as the brothers and the tracker hunt their way through the backwoods and the rivers - it is all quite beautiful and incredibly filmic. This book just cries out to be filmed and I found myself visualizing the settings and the shots as I read, I also did my usual trick which can on occasions really annoy me as it distracts, of casting the parts and one name and face came into my mind for the role of Mary from page one and could not be shifted. I am not going to mention who it is, as I do not want this image to possibly intrude into another mind's eye and spoil The Outlander for anybody else.

It was the endless dogged pursuit of Mary and the awful feeling of panic at the knowledge that this pursuit was never going to end that made me think of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. This feeling, that they could never get away, that they would never spend a day without looking over their shoulder to see if their pursuers were there, which made this film into something more than it appeared on the surface, gave a feeling of permanent dread, that no matter how long you might spend being happy, you know it will never last and then..........

Uncomfortable pricking between the shoulders.

I know very little of the author, Gil Adamson, but I gather she has written poetry and short stories. This is her first novel and I most sincerely hope it will not be her last. I was totally taken by this wonderful book and just sat entranced and read it straight through, neglecting all sorts of chores and tasks I had to do, in order to finish as I could not tear myself away.

Originally published in Canada by Anansi Press which looks a pretty interesting publishing house. It is available in the UK from Bloomsbury.

This is a stunning book. Loved it.

1 comment:

Wendy said...

Lovely review! I loved this book when I read an ARC of it last year...I hope we see a sequel!