Cross Stitch by Diana Gabaldon is a book catapulted from popular novel status into wider popular culture thanks to its adaptation into the TV series Outlander last year. The television series is fantastic and was renewed for a second series as soon as the first episode aired in the USA. However, what is great about the television series is better in the novel – Cross Stitch is far more layered and complex, with individual narratives that are far deeper than a 13 episode series is able to explore.
Cross Stitch tells the story of wartime nurse Claire Randall, who is on her second honeymoon with her husband in the Highlands of Scotland in 1945. When visiting a circle of standing stones at Craig Na Duin, she is transported back in time to 1743, in the midst of clan rule in Scotland, in the years before the rising of Bonnie Prince Charlie, and the massacre of Scottish Highlanders at Culloden. She is rescued from the rapacious hands of an English Red Coat soldier by several Scottish clansmen, and meets the mysterious Jamie Fraser.
Many synopsis’ of Gabaldon’s novel emphasise the importance of the relationship between Claire and Jamie, and certainly Claire’s growing relationship and love for the young Scotsman is central to Cross Stitch. At its heart, however, Cross Stitch is Claire’s story. It focuses on her assimilation into Scottish culture, and her emotional turmoil, caught between her duty to her husband in one time, and the growing passion she feels for Jamie Fraser in another. It is about her choice, her desires, and her happiness, rather than about the relative merits of each man. At its core, the novel is about Claire deciding between doing what she thinks is right and moral, and what she wants to do. And while Jamie certainly cuts an extremely romantic figure, with his red hair, tall stature, and kilt, Gabaldon emphasises that it is not attraction that leads to Claire’s choice.
Cross Stitch is a fairly weighty novel – at roughly 900 pages long it could probably put off someone looking for light easy reading. However, Gabaldon makes up for this almost punishing length with a narrative which flows exactly as it should, with moments of intense excitement, and moments of calm, allowing the reader to fully take in the story progression. She spends plenty of time at the start of the novel in the twentieth century, establishing Claire and her husband Frank as complete characters, before the excitement of time travel and Eighteenth Century Scotland is introduced. With Claire, Gabaldon creates a heroine who is not a super woman – she grows throughout the novel, and indeed throughout the rest of the series. Jamie is also crafted to be the perfect foil for the twentieth century woman. He is strong and at times commanding, but moments are created to show his vulnerability, like his virginal wedding night. In moments like this, Claire is allowed authority and seniority, matching the two characters.
The setting of the novel is comprehensive, down to the phonetically rendered Scots speech. To start with this can be confusing, but you soon get to grips with what individual idiosyncratic words mean. You feel immersed in the culture presented to you throughout the novel, and while I am no expert in Eighteenth Century Scotland, the landscape and characters certainly feel authentic. Gabaldon doesn’t shy away from the problems of the time she has set the novel in either – the problems of sanitation and health care are examined, and the excesses of power that came with the English subjugation of the Highlands are ruthlessly exposed. She presents flogging and brutal torture in a forthright manner, and features a scene of male rape, a rarity in most modern literature.
Cross Stitch is an engaging read, with great characterisation and a compelling narrative.
Cross Stitch is published by Arrow and is available now. Outlander season one is available via Amazon Instant Video.