I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.
The second book I’ve read off the list is #160 Cross Stitch (Outlander 1) by Diana Gabaldon. I’d never heard of this book before finding it on the list. I chose to download and start reading the Kindle sample because of the title: I like cross stitch and thought the book might have something to with the needle arts.
I was completely wrong. In fact, having read the book all the way through I still have no idea why the publisher chose this title for the British edition. I think the title used in the USA, Outlander, makes a lot more sense.
That aside, the book is totally absorbing and I’d definitely recommend it.
What’s it about?
Time travel. Well, sort of. Claire and her husband are on a sort of second honeymoon in the Scottish highlands. It’s 1946 and they’ve spent most of the war apart so they’re trying to reconnect. Their peace is shattered when Claire walks through a stone circle and finds herself 200 years in the past. The 1740s were a violent and dramatic period in Scottish history, and Claire – with her English accent and odd manners – finds herself under suspicion from all sides.
Is the time travel any good?
It’s really, really easy to write bad time travel stories. Cross Stitch is a very good one and escapes a lot of the usual problems (pointlessly confusing narrative, characters accepting odd happenings for no reason, implausible levels of coincidence, to name just three) for reasons which might be spoilery to relate. Suffice it to say that although there were a couple moments which jarred, there were far fewer than I find in a typical episode of Doctor Who.
There are a few, well, very fortunate events. Claire is a nurse, which is handy, with an interest in medicinal plants, which could follow, I suppose, and her husband’s ancestors were from the area they’re visiting, so Clare is unusually well informed about the local history. He’s a historian, which is why they’re in that part of the country and poking around stone circles in the first place, but all in all I do feel Clare was quite well-equipped for her tumble into history.
That said, as the period she lands in is quite unfriendly, without a useful skill and a little local knowledge she would probably have died before the end of the second chapter. So I can’t fault Gabaldon for her choices and feel that she was quite restrained in outfitting Claire with useful knowledge.
Men, women, warriors and history
I know hardly anything about this period of Scottish history, but the book feels well researched. Even better – and possibly as a result – the author hasn’t fallen into the trap of writing women who watch and men who do. Claire is a fabulous character and there are strong and active male and female characters woven throughout the story while remaining faithful to the gender divides recorded at the time.
The only warning I have is that there is quite a lot of sex in the book and while most of it is consensual, there is some that definitely isn’t (which is treated as rape) and some which, on my reading, was a bit suspect. On a couple of occasions I felt there was a mistmatch between the information the reader had (yes, do go on) and the information the other character had (no, stop). This happens a lot in fiction, particularly in romance novels, but it always makes me uncomfortable when I spot it.
On balance, I very much enjoyed Cross Stitch and the only thing stopping me from buying book 2 in the series is the relatively high price tag – it’s £5.84 for the Kindle edition right now so I think I’d better finish Great Expectations or Heidi first.
A friend reposted her 2004 review of the book at her blog this week, which is the sort of coincidence I would deplore in a time travel novel. Check out Alex in Leeds’ review of Cross Stitch for a different perspective.