Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Outlander

The Outlander by Gil Adamson (House of Anansi 2007)

Gil Adamson’s first novel is a yarn well-spun, full of improbable, implausible, and near-mythical events. It is the stuff of legend, with one foot planted firmly in accurate history, and one foot treading the ether-sphere of picaresque adventure.

Mary Boulton is a murderess, plain and simple. One may argue that she is the victim of postpartum depression, or overwhelming grief at the death of her child; she may even be insane with jealousy over her husband’s indiscretions. But no matter which way you slice it, Mary pulled the trigger that blew a hole in her husband’s thigh "so the bone came out the back...[and] a pink mist suffused the air." Then she "sat down to wait" as he bled out on the floor of their isolated cabin. "Eventually, she took up her sewing."

On the lam, Mary scrambles half-crazed into the Crowsnest Pass and through the rocky mountains, pursued at first by dogs, and later by something more sinister – her late-husband’s brothers. Mary is taken in, befriended, apprenticed, and loved by a host of eccentric characters throughout her flight. She bears witness and survives the Frank Landslide at Turtle Mountain where "for a full minute, the mountain seemed to billow, then slowly collapse, floating downward." But always and relentlessly, she is hunted by "red-headed brothers with rifles across their backs...and fine black boots."

Adamson recreates turn-of-the-century Canada and its vast tracks of wilderness in assiduous detail. Her language is poetic and elevating, so that even the harsh savagery of the land and its inhabitants take on an otherworldliness, a sweeping cinematic beauty.

Conversely, however, the novel’s history can hijack the story. Each character Mary encounters or rubs up against during her adventures opens a new world to be explored and plumbed by the author. This can take wind from the novel’s sails. Fortunately, we have the brothers to get us back on track.

All in all, it is an engrossing tale. One may well have to suspend disbelief while reading The Outlander, but Adamson does well to remind us that books still have the power to transport us beyond the mundane.

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