Sunday, February 22, 2009

Pickle Me This reads Canada Reads: The Outlander by Gil Adamson

Right there on the back cover of Gil Adamson's The Outlander, it's labelled, "Part historical novel, part Gothic tale, and part literary Western". The sort of hybrid book readers go crazy for, and I've certainly never heard a word against it. Adamson's first novel (though she's published collections of short stories and poetry before) has at its forefront Mary Boulton, "The Widow", who we find at the beginning of the story fleeing through the woods with dogs on her trail, being pursued by her enormous red-headed brothers-in-law. It appears that she's killed her husband, so the brothers are determined to find her and force her to face some kind of justice.

The book refers back to a time when the maps were all empty, though we know that Mary Boulton is in Western Canada. The shape of the novel being her track across that empty place-- imagine her as a furiously dotted line. Along the way she encounters several different characters, though some are hallucinations. Never safe, she stays nowhere too long, and passes from one port to another until she ends up in the mining town of Frank, British Columbia.

The book's strongest feature is its language, I think, which is gorgeous and evocative. Describing a nature which is in turns glorious and brutal, as well as the bare facts of Mary Boulton's situation-- her hunger, her sickness, her madness. She's an intriguing character, even more so in the flashbacks when we see she comes from a background like nothing you'd expect of a murderess, and that she was a very different kind of girl once upon a time.

Unfortunately, I never felt I got close enough to her, to understand why she killed her husband, to understand why she runs. She was a character distant enough to be called just "The Widow", and those around her were even more distant, incidental to her flight. The plot seems a loose construction around the language, which dragged down to reveal that not so much was there. The book said to be "gripping" but I was never gripped. With every page, with every new character she encountered, I'd think, "Ok, now it starts..." but it never did for me.

Which I don't think is the book's fault, but I was just so far from its ideal reader. "Part historical novel, part Gothic tale, and part literary Western" seems a recipe for the kind of book that puts me to sleep. Which is why my review is a bit lax here, but there really aren't hours in the day for me to spend thoughtfully reviewing books I don't like. Particularly when so many others do like this one, and they can't all be wrong. I'll be really interested in hearing readers' arguments for this book, but I think it might all just come down to a matter of taste.

**Check out a more positive take on The Outlander over at the Canada Reads site.

Canada Reads Rankings (so far):
1) Fruit by Brian Francis
2) Mercy Among the Children by David Adams Richards
3) The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill
4) The Outlander by Gil Adamson