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Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Go Tell the Bees that I Am Gone by Diana Gabaldon review: Outlander is back – but why sideline the heroine?

Eager viewers of the TV adaptation of Outlander have termed the wait between seasons “Droughtlander”. Well, Diana Gabaldon’s readers are surely gasping: it’s been seven years since her last volume of historical romance. Their reward is a book aimed squarely at aficionados, steeped as it is in series history. Numerous characters from previous instalments re-emerge, past dramas are rehashed, and there are long-awaited revelations that will satisfy devotees, though likely baffle anyone else.

However, even those devotees may question why the first few hundred pages are spent on an extended family reunion as time-travelling doctor Claire and her hunky 18th-century Highlander husband Jamie Fraser resettle in North Carolina with their sprawling clan. Gabaldon is a gifted world-builder, and her attention to the unglamorous details of life in the past, like digging privies, plus authentic portraits of marriage and relationships lift her series above the usual bodice-rippers. Even if our now middle-aged central couple do have remarkably impressive sex drives.

However, after an ominous prologue and constant talk of conflict (we begin in 1779, during the American Revolutionary War) you long for more action. Eventually, we do encounter real battles and historical figures – though the latter can’t match up to previous appearances from George Washington and Bonnie Prince Charlie – but Gabaldon’s main characters are seldom key participants. It’s particularly frustrating that the spirited Claire is so often confined to a domestic or observer role.

The most poignant thread is seeing friends, neighbours and relations divided by their loyalist or patriot sympathies – a salient reminder of the human cost of such enterprises, and the leap of faith they require. We also get a further glimmer of supernatural forces at work, interestingly juxtaposed with jostling religions: Presbyterian, Catholic and Quaker. But this episodic epic is really just another chapter in the ongoing saga, rather than a distinct novel. And that may suit Outlander fans just fine.

Go Tell the Bees that I Am Gone is published by Century at £20. To order your copy call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop

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