Dragonfly in Amber
Dragonfly in Amber is the second in Diana Gabaldon’s popular Outlander series and I will be spoiling the first book in this review.
The central protagonist is the Englishwoman Claire Beauchamp or Fraser whom we saw in the first book disappearing through standing stones two hundred years in the past to the time just before the Jacobite rising of 1745 and manage to survive all kinds of perils and adventures, largely thanks to the interventions of her husband Jamie Fraser. This does not mean that Claire herself is a shrinking violet but rather that there were problems and situations that might occur within pre-modern Scotland that are beyond the ability of a woman to manage, mainly as a result of the overwhelming force used in the violence that was more common in daily life. As a nurse with extensive frontline experience during WWII (the first book opens just after the conclusion of the war in 1945), Claire is neither squeamish nor disempowered in the face of unanticipated events but she lives in a world in which women have influence women have influence and the ability to change the world around them mostly from erotic power and family position, albeit there are some forms of work which can lend social cachet sufficient to discourage causal mistreatment. Nevertheless, this is something of an existentialist approach to historical fiction in that it suggests that characters might indeed have, should they be able to imagine such a thing and then to act on it, the ability to affect the world as subject rather than object of the arrow of time. This, of course, is central to the concept of time travel fiction: if there is not an obvious and immediate need to change the past, then one can soon be invented by the author. In this case, there is no need for invention since Claire, whose first and future husband, so to speak, was or will be a historian and, by virtue of sharing his research activities with her, she is well aware of the forthcoming disaster for the Scottish people that the Battle of Culloden represents. Can the two manage this while also ensuring that her future husband – Frank – will still be born despite being the descendant of the vile villain Black Jack Randall? This is the principal dynamic driving the narrative through this lengthy novel.
Indeed, at more than 900 pages, one might wonder whether the novel is a little too long, especially since it is divided quite neatly into two parts, the first in France and the second in Scotland. It seems possible that the book was originally conceived of by the author as two books but, somewhere along the production line, the decision was made that two should become one. In any case, the pace of the narrative is brisk and the voice of Claire – hers is almost entirely the point of view of the book – is an interesting and entertaining companion, even if she will occasionally stray into some kind of parallel world of romantic fiction. However, she eschews prudishness and revels in adopting a practical course of action whenever this is required of her. She ages over the course of the book but she does not really change. This could be said of all the characters who only ever become more of themselves than they already are either through experience or through revelations of past events.
There are, of course, some problems with verisimilitude. There is a man in Scotland watching daytime television in 1968. The pubs seem to be open all day in contravention to the prevailing licensing laws and seem to require (this is a perennial issue with American authors) customers to pay a bill at the end of a session rather than round by round. However, if a reader is willing to accept the basic premise that it is possible to travel back and forth through time then that reader should be able to accept the occasional anachronism – after all, all of the dialogue in the past is probably best read in the spirit of a Captain Jack Sparrow pirate accent anyway.
Overall, this is an entertaining and diverting read and I would be happy more or less (given how long it takes to read 950 odd pages) to read more of the series.