Flight into the wilder­ness

The Out­lander By Gil Adam­son Allen & Un­win, 408pp, $ 29.95

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Kevin Ra­bal­ais

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.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Sturt Krygs­man

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