It’s 1946 and Claire Randall is in Inverness with her husband Frank, reconnecting after a long separation due to the Second World War. Their days are filled with exploring the Scottish Highlands, Frank’s genealogical research, and time getting re-acquainted with each other. One day, however, Claire returns to a circle of standing stones they’d come across on one of their outings and before she knows it she’s passed through one of them and landed in 1743. Here she meets Black Jack Randall, one of her husband’s ancestors, but without any of the gentleness of his descendant. She’s soon whisked away by a group of Highlanders and becomes their captive while they try to work out if she’s an English spy, or threat in another way. During this time she desperately tries to find a way to escape and get back to the stones and Frank. It soon becomes apparent that this will be no easy feat, and that there are many barriers between her and the stones, not least her own heart.
She is naturally disoriented and confused when she first arrives, not understanding what has happened. Once she’s accepted that she has travelled through time she keeps it together as much as possible, but it’s not easy. She is distraught to have been separated from Frank and desperately worried about how he will be coping with her mysterious disappearance. Her medical ability and the openness of the Highlanders to let her heal them helps to ground her, reminding her that these are real people, and giving her a sense of herself. She is not mistreated but she is nonetheless a prisoner, and one that is approached with suspicion. She uses techniques that Frank has told her about from his experiences during the war - when under interrogation to tell the truth as far as possible. His interest in history also proves useful as it provides Claire not just with information that helps her fit in to the time more easily, but also some privileged knowledge which she is able to use as a bargaining tool. Of course, there’s also the difficult position of knowing how history is going to pan out without being able to help change it.
Despite her knowledge there are still many times when her modern views put her and others in danger. Her use of language is frequently in contrast to other women of the time, but it is her inability to stomach some of the cruelties and injustices of the time which cause the most problems. Her response to witnessing physical punishments remind us that although we know about these things happening in the past it is an entirely different experience witnessing them first hand. She also reflects on her own time, on the blame placed on normal German citizens, and how unfair this is when faced with a mob. She is ashamed to discover that self preservation kicks in ahead of saving others.
Luckily for Claire, Jamie Fraser, the hero of the series, is frequently on hand to help not just her, but others in a sticky situation. There are times, however, when he becomes frustrated with Claire, as the reader does, for constantly ignoring those who know the time better, and putting others at great risk as a result. Claire is by no means a damsel in distress, more than willing to stick up for herself, and indeed to kill, but Jamie is often needed to save the day in the typical heroic fashion. At times you’ll find yourself rolling your eyes at how deeply embedded certain topes are, but this does not take away from the enjoyment of the story.
Jamie’s initial introduction, however, is understated - he is a regular Highlander, injured and unassuming. His thoughtfulness and care are built up over time as Claire sees more of his interactions with others, as well as developing an easy rapport with him herself. She feels safe with him, and he promises from the off to protect her. He is clearly a moral man who cares about others, but it is their wedding that will make the reader fall for him. It is a marriage of convenience but he looks after the little details to try and make it special for her. His innocence on their wedding night is endearing and a nice inversion of what we have come to expect from such stories. Criticism has sometimes been directed at the series for the anachronistic modernism of Jamie’s character, but in this first book we see some less appealing aspects that would be more in keeping with the time. He strongly believes in her duty to obey him, a fact that Claire pushes back against. He also beats her as punishment for disobeying, and there are some sex scenes between them which feel uncomfortably close to assault. Even at gentler times she acknowledges that saying no is not an option.
Despite certain misgivings, both Claire and the reader feel fondly toward Jamie, and as they grow closer she becomes consumed with guilt. She can’t reconcile having married another man, but also feels the cruelty of planning to leave Jamie, who is clearly quite infatuated with her, without warning or explanation. When she finally has the chance to leave she must make a heartbreaking decision as to which man she can’t live without. This is a pivotal, emotional moment, and one that demonstrates the depth of feeling that has developed between the newlyweds.
This is an enjoyable, addictive read. There are many moments of humour throughout and a wonderful host of characters. Gabaldon is careful to remind the reader of Frank when they’re at risk of getting too swept up in the love story of Claire and Jamie. Black Jack Randall provides an unwelcome reminder of her first husband - she often comments on their similarities and the expressions that in one evokes love and in the other horror. This is a clever addition and makes you wonder if Claire would be able to put the memory of him to one side if she were able to get back to Frank. This book should come with a trigger warning for sexual assault as it is alluded to throughout and described in realistic, upsetting detail. At times it feels as though the threat of rape is exaggerated, with all the men seemingly a danger after a few drinks, but the most disturbing incident is dealt with well. It does not feel gratuitous and the emotional consequences are considered quite deeply.
The book doesn’t shy away from difficult events, and although Gabaldon admits to the history knowingly being incorrect at times, it doesn’t cause a block for readers. There are some sections that drag a little but mostly it is hard to put down. There is love, heartbreak, peril and adventure that will be plenty to keep most readers entertained. If you enjoy books that stir up the emotions this is certainly one for you, and the good news is there’s another eight books to enjoy after this one.