Flight into the wilderness
The Outlander By Gil Adamson Allen & Unwin, 408pp, $ 29.95
GIL Adamson’s debut novel, The Outlander , is the kind of book Cormac McCarthy might write should he make a woman his main character and Canada his setting. Adamson writes lean and haunting prose. Its rhythms, like McCarthy’s, propel the plot and reveal a sense of mystery and impending doom. Despite this influence, the novel seeks — and finds — a new direction as a literary adventure. After experiencing the novel’s remarkable opening sequence, Adamson’s readers will want to follow her anywhere on this journey.
From the beginning, Adamson infuses the novel with an unrelenting intensity: ‘‘ 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 the moonlit field.’’
Set in Alberta in 1903, The Outlander opens with a woman on the run. We’re set down in the midst of her flight. ‘‘ No sound,’’ Adamson writes, ‘‘ except the dripping of her skirts and, far away, the dogs.’’ This is a novel in which many mysteries surface through flickers of poetic descriptions, which introduce everything we need to know of its main character: ‘‘ Nineteen years old and already a widow. Mary Boulton. Widowed by her own hand.’’
The novel accumulates its momentum from such shards of precise and minimal information. Adamson lays details sporadically across her pages, calling on the reader to pick up these pieces as if they are breadcrumbs that Boulton leaves on her escape trail.
Early on, we learn that Boulton, known for most of the novel simply as the widow, is fleeing for her life. We soon discover that the men who hunt her, red- headed twins, have their reasons for seeking revenge. As Adamson writes: ‘‘ They would come soon, her husband’s brothers. She could almost feel it in the air. There would be gossip among the church people, news travelling like smouldering fire, driven by vindictive tongues.’’
The brothers’ search to find the widow and their desire to bring her to justice create a wonderful tension in this novel that is at once picaresque adventure and western- style thriller. Adamson does not rely on these elements alone to propel her narrative, however. Her depictions of the Alberta wilderness become as central to the novel as any character. We follow the widow as she learns to live in this world where nothing is recognisable. She advances through the unforgiving landscape, but Adamson’s story of her escape never prevents the novel’s quick pace from overtaking the smaller moments of the widow’s experience. She writes, ‘‘ In the cold night she was obliged to rise from her dozing and walk the mare to keep them both warm, while their common breath followed them in meaningless Braille.’’
While the landscape and Adamson’s cadenced prose become hallmarks of The Outlander , there are also memorable and eccentric characters whom the widow meets. Among these are a preacher who challenges his parishioners to weekly fistfights and another man known simply as the lunatic. They are the kind of Gothic figures who haunt McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and The Road . In Adamson’s hands, however, they never become pastiche. Some of these characters mark danger while others provide relief, such as the mountain man William Moreland. Based on a real figure who lived for nine years in the wilds as he raided forest rangers’ camps for survival, Moreland entrances the widow with his tales. ‘‘ In this extreme cold,’’ Adamson writes, ‘‘ he saw peril and beauty in measured balance, like a promise to him alone, silent confirmation of the divine.’’
Moreland and the widow begin an affair as tender as her marriage was brutal, but even his presence eventually falls aside. All the while, the twins continue their pursuit. As if that weren’t enough, the widow also experiences visions as she makes her ‘‘ solemn procession through wilderness into an unknown future’’. Among her many hallucinations is the following, of clouds, which Adamson describes as: ‘‘ Furies born and soon dead with a simple breath of sun; but potent while they lasted, and terrible.’’
Adamson is the author of two previous collections of poetry and a book of stories. Her first novel reveals a writer of consummate skill and grace.
Her rhythmic prose causes us to read much of The Outlander in a dream- like state similar to the widow’s hallucinations. There we find, ‘‘ How alive the illusions always were — there is art in madness, in its disastrous immediacy.’’ Kevin Rabalais’s novel, The Landscape of Desire ( Scribe), was published this year. Gil Adamson will be a guest at the Melbourne Writers Festival in August.