Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Outlander (Outlander #1) by Diana Gabaldon

Trigger Warning for discussions of child abuse, IPV, and rape.

Claire and Frank Randall head to Scotland to reacquaint themselves with each other after a six year separation, due to Claire's work as a combat nurse during WWII.  Frank uses this time to research his family history and though Claire is supportive, she's not necessarily interested in the role that Frank's ancestor played in the Jackobite uprising.  Clarie finds herself at the stone circle at Craigh na Dun and when she touches the cleft rock, Claire's life takes a turn she could never have imagined.

When Claire regains consciousness, she finds herself 200 years in the past but before she can make sense of what happened, Claire finds herself in a confrontation is Black Jack Randall, the 6x grandfather of her husband.  Thankfully for Claire, a group of highlanders come along and rescue her before she can be raped.  The problem is that the highlanders take Claire away from the stones she needs to stay near to, in order to return to her own time.  Caught up in the upcoming uprising, clan politics and the tyranny of Black Jack Randall, Claire has only her wits to protect herself with.

Essentially, Outlander is a historical fantasy/romance novel.  As much as the novel concerns itself with Claire learning how to live 200 years in the past, it is also about her relationship with Jamie Fraser, the man she is forced into marrying.  Claire is a really strong protagonist, who never fears saying exactly what she is thinking or feeling for that matter.  This gets her into some trouble at times, as of course, gender dynamics in the 1700's, are extremely patriarchal and rigid.  The highlanders are highly suspicious of Claire, who they fear to be an English spy and Claire must spend her time trying to convince them that she is not working for the crown, even as she hides the truth of her identity from them.

As the story continues, Claire's marriage of convenience to Jamie, turns into love and is she troubled by the fact that she has a husband - Frank Randall waiting and worrying about her 1945.   Many of the other female characters in this novel are very strong and outspoken, particularly Jenny, Jamie's sister.  Jenny refuses to be bullied by anyone and stands toe to toe with her older brother when he tries to shame her because he believes that she is a rape victim. Instead, Jenny laughs at her would be rapist and fights back to the best of her ability.
“I laughed. I mean—” Her eyes met her brother’s with some defiance. “I kent well enough how a man’s made. I’d seen you naked often enough, and Willy and Ian as well. But he—” A tiny smile appeared on her lips, despite her apparent efforts to suppress it. He looked so funny, all red in the face, and rubbing himself so frantic, and yet still only half—”

There was a choked sound from Ian, and she bit her lip, but went on bravely.

“He didna like it when I laughed, and I could see it, so I laughed some more. That’s when he lunged at me and tore my dress half off me. I smacked him in the face, and he struck me across the jaw, hard enough to make me see stars. Then he grunted a bit, as though that pleased him, and started to climb onto the bed wi’ me. I had just about sense enough left to laugh again. I struggled up onto my knees, and I—I taunted him. I told him I kent he was no a real man, and couldna manage wi’ a woman. I—”

She bent her head still further, so the dark curls swung down past her flaming cheeks. Her words were very low, almost a whisper.“I…spread the pieces of my gown apart, and I…taunted him wi’ my breasts. I told him I knew he was afraid o’ me, because he wasna fit to touch a woman, but only to sport wi’ beasts and young lads…”

“Jenny,” said Jamie, shaking his head helplessly.

Her head came up to look at him. “Weel, I did then,” she said. “It was all I could think of, and I could see that he was fair off his head, but it was plain too that he…couldn’t. And I stared right at his breeches and I laughed again. And then he got his hands round my throat, throttling me, and I cracked my head against the bedpost, and…and when I woke he’d gone, and you wi’ him.” (pg 540- 541)
When Jamie is kidnapped, even after just giving birth to a baby, Jenny is not afraid to go on a rescue mission to save her brother.  Then you have Mrs. Fitz who runs her kitchen with an iron hand and shows Claire the ropes somewhat.  Mrs.Fitz is unafraid to stand up to himself (the Laird), when she believes that Claire is in danger after a report of a witch trial in town.  The women of Outlander are not above scheming if they must, or even playing on the gender roles that they have been given in order to get their way. Even Geille whose life ends horribly manages to outsmart her husband and murder him.

For a historical fantasy romance, Outlander is filled with violence from start to finish.  Yes, violence between the English and the Scottish is to be expected given the time period but Gabaldon takes it so much further.  We have Geille, a pregnant woman and yet another traveler from the future, who is set up as a witch by Callum and Dougall and killed.  Homicide is the leading cause of death amongst pregnant women and Gabaldon used this as a small additive to her story.  The only purpose Geille's death served was to inform the reader that she had also traveled from the future.  Surely, such information could have been imparted without her violent death.

Gabaldon did include a disabled character in the form of Column ban Campbell MacKenzie, the laird of the Mackenzie clan.  Column suffers from Toulouse-Lautrec syndome - a degenerative disease of bone and connective issue.  Column spends much of his time in pain and is therefore dependent upon his brother Dougal to be his legs, eyes and yes, cock.  Though Column is a very powerful man, he is cold and extremely calculating.  While these characteristics don't make a Column at all a pleasant man, they are necessary for him to rule the wild MacKenzie clan.  Column is central to the story but does not play a large role.

To invest in Outlander, a reader must absolutely invest in the budding romance between Jamie and Claire.  Gabaldon does include a subversive aspect in their relationship by having Jamie be the virgin and Claire the more experienced partner.  Claire must guide Jamie through their sexual interactions, as well as answer his questions regarding sex. This is where the subversion ends because while Claire is a very sexual being, it is Jamie who routinely initiates sex, occasionally over ruling any reticence on Claire's part.  Once Claire assents to the first sex act, there is never a time at which is allowed to say no. Gabaldon frames it as being coaxed into sex and this is indeed troubling.

Jamie is the typical male love interest, exceedingly handsome, strong willed, and passionate, with willingness to sacrifice himself for the woman he loves.  Jamie is also extremely earnest and gregarious.  If that were the end to his character, it would be fair to call this a paint by numbers romance; however, Jamie is also fond of laughing about his experience of being thrashed as a child, a perpetrator of domestic violence and a rape victim.

Jamie speaks lovingly and humorously about his father beating him.  For Jamie, these thrashings are a rite of passage that one must suffer as one moves from childhood to manhood.   Claire even suggests that the proper way to raise children is to talk with them and reason them but Jamie believes that his role will be take their future children outside and thrash them when Claire is through.  This causes Claire to rightfully question of Jamie even likes children.  His response is as follows:
"I do. My father liked me, when I wasna being an idiot.  And he loves me, too - enough to beat the daylights out of me when I was being an idiot."
Is it any wonder that someone who associates violence with love, would then feel that beating his wife is an appropriate response to her disobeying a direct order?  Jamie believes that beating Claire is a form of justice because her actions put his male relatives in danger and that because he is Claire's husband, it's his duty to be the one to administer the punishment.
He pried my fingers loose with some difficulty, and pulled firmly, hauling me to the side of the bed. I kicked him in the shins, but did no damage, not having shoes on. Grunting slightly, he managed to turn me facedown on the bed, twisting my arm to hold me there.

“I mean to do it, Claire! Now, if you’ll cooperate wi’ me, we’ll call the account square with a dozen strokes.”

“And if not?” I quavered. He picked up the strap and slapped it against his leg with a nasty thwapping sound.

“Then I shall put a knee in your back and beat you ’til my arm tires, and I warn ye, you’ll tire of it long before I do.”

I bounced off the bed and whirled to face him, fists clenched.

“You barbarian! You…you sadist!” I hissed furiously. “You’re doing this for your own pleasure! I’ll never forgive you for this!” Jamie paused, twisting the belt.

He replied levelly, “I dinna know what’s a sadist. And if I forgive you for this afternoon, I reckon you’ll forgive me, too, as soon as ye can sit down again.”

“As for my pleasure…” His lip twitched. “I said I would have to punish you. I did not say I wasna going to enjoy it.” He crooked a finger at me.“Come here.” (pg 350)
Yes, he does indeed enjoy it and has the nerve to say that he took pity on Clair by not trying to coax her into having sex with him that night because he was greatly aroused.  Jamie beat Claire so hard that she could not sit without great difficulty for three days.  He continued to stick to his defense of it being justice for Claire's action.  Furthermore, for the next three days, Claire must endure the laughter and teasing by Jamie's male relatives, who listened passively downstairs, as she was being beaten.  How is this even remotely acceptable?

Sure, I know that this is a historical novel and that  during that time period, it was commonplace for men to beat their wives and children but this does not mean that the action suddenly  becomes acceptable or even excusable.  Furthermore, none of the aforementioned was at all necessary to narrative. To keep the romance going, Gabaldon is forced to have Claire forgive Jamie for his violence; however, this does not stop Jamie from expressing regret that he made a promise not to hit Claire again.  He's a real charmer isn't he folks?

The main antagonist of this story is Johnathan Randall, Esquire, Captain of His Majesty's Eighth Dragoons.  There is no doubt from Randall's entrance in Outlander that he is a dangerous and deeply damaged man.  Randall is just as suspicious of Claire, as Collum and Dougall are.  What more, Randall has a history of violence with Jamie, whose back he flayed on the whipping post almost to the point of death.  Men do terrible things in war and it's clear that in this case, Randall has lost all sense of his humanity and empathy.

That would have been enough to make Randall a villainous antagonist but Gabaldon took it one step further by making him a rapist.  The book covers two incidents of attempted rape by him (once Jenny and then Claire) and then 2 completed male on male rapes after which, one of the victims commits suicide. As it turns out, Randall is gay and excited by torturing his victims.  To that end, he tortures Jamie by burning him with a hot poker, driving a nail into his hand, breaking all the bones in Jamie's hand with mallet, whipping him and sodomizing him repeatedly, only to beg Jamie to tell him that he loves him. Jamie even suggests that part of Randall's incentive is jealousy about his relationship with Claire.  Gabaldron has Jamie describe the events to Claire in exacting detail.  Randall's rape of Jamie was absolutely not necessary to the story and was absolutely gratuitous and furthermore, having this act done by one of the two gay characters in this story reeks of outright homophobia.

It became clear early on in Jamie's captivity that he was going to be subjected to rape by Randall and none of this bought sympathy from the male side characters.  They were quick to dismiss the harm, claiming that a sore bottom wouldn't kill him.  Sure, Jamie could survive a rape but that does not mean that harm would not be done.  Then, there is the incident with Sir. Marcus. When Sir Marcus is helping Jamie get cleaned up and sorted after being raped by Randall, he discovers an oily sheen on Jamie's buttocks.  Clearly at this point, Sir Marcus has to realise what happened to Jamie and instead of sympathy he simply says, "At least he had the consideration to grease ye a bit beforehand." 

Gabaldon then decided to further traumatize Jamie by having Claire imitate Randall, thus triggering Jamie, when Jamie was near death, in order to have him fight to regain consciousness and overcome a fever.  How does this even make sense?  Triggering a rape victim with the intimate details of their rape because it's good for them, is a complete denial of the harm and violation of rape.  To make matters worse,  Jamie quite quickly gets over the rape and torture and sooths himself by having sex with Claire.  Yes, you read that right.  When a man gets raped by another man, the best way to heal is to simply fuck a woman. 

The only good thing to come out of this part of the story was Jamie talking about how his body responded to Randall when he didn't want to.  Many survivors feel guilty for their body's reactions to the sexual stimuli, even though it's against their will.  

The second gay character in Outlander, is the Duke of Sandringham and unfortunately, the Duke is a pedophile.
“Well,” he began, “it’s true enough what Ned says; His Grace had something of an eye for me, though being the innocent I was at sixteen—” Here he was interrupted by a number of cynical remarks, and raised his voice to go on. “Bein’, as I say, innocent of such carryings on, I’d no idea what he meant, though it seemed a bit strange to me, the way His Grace was always wanting to pat me like a wee dog and was so interested in what I might ha’ in my sporran.” (“Or under it!” shouted a drunken voice.)
“I thought it stranger still,” he went on, “when he found me washing myself at the river and wanted to wash my back for me. When he finished my back and went on wi’ the rest, I began to get a wee bit nervous, and when he put his hand under my kilts, I began to get the general idea. I may have been an innocent, but no a complete fool, ye ken.

“I got out of that particular situation by diving into the water, kilts and all, and swimming across to the other side; His Grace being not of a mind to risk his costly clothes in the mud and water. (pg 424)
Instead of being horrified by this story of attempted rape of a minor, the people assembled laugh as Jamie tells them yet another incident of the Duke attempting to force him into sex.  Because of his position of power, nothing is done to stop the Duke and instead, the MacKenzie's only warn their young men to stay away from the Duke during his visit, once again citing that a sore bum won't kill anyone. So there you have it, the two gay characters in this novel are outright predators.  One is a sadist and a rapist and the other a child molester.  Yeah for representation and inclusion folks.

Outlander is filled with intimate partner violence disguised as romance, violence against women,child abuse and horribly homophobic gay tropes.  None of the violence or the homophobia added anything significant to the story, making it all ridiculously gratuitous.  If anything, it detracted from the story.

There is nothing really original about Outlander.  The idea of a woman going back into the past and falling in love with a man, and starting a new life, is anything but new.  Gabaldon didn't add anything to this genre, all she did is include extreme violence and try to romanticize the whole thing by centering Outlander around the relationship between Jamie and Claire.  The problem of course is that all of the acts of violence took away the possibility of investing in the relationship.  How am I to believe that Jamie loves Claire, when he beats her so much that she cannot sit for three days? How am I to believe that Claire loves Jamie, when she intentionally triggers him regarding his brutal rape, in a so-called effort to keep him alive? Why should I believe that being loved by your wife (read: fucking), is enough to cure the mental trauma of being savaged. How can I take Outlander even remotely seriously? From start to finish, Outlander is a hot mess of horrible tropes and unnecessary violence. It's 627 pages of so-called romance, used to cover up the most vile characterization, even as it reduces the experience of being violated to quaint anecdotes to laugh at over a beer.  I cannot see how anyone reading this who is a survivor of child abuse, IPV, or rape could read Outlander without being triggered. Being good on one axis (gender in this case) does not absolve Gabaldon of the horror of the rest of the book.