Book reviews, Drama, Literary fiction

Review: The Outside Lands

The Outside Lands, Hannah Kohler’s accomplished debut, explores the effects of war, death and duty on one American family.

The Outside Lands

Meet the author

I met Hannah Kohler early this year at a book launch organised by Forum Books in Corbridge. She was there with fellow writer Lisa Owens and Picador’s Editorial Director, Francesca Main, as part of the publisher’s debut author tour. The event was inspiring and intriguing, with both Kohler and Owens explaining how they had arrived at their first novels through Creative Writing MAs and detailing the process they went through to develop their texts.

Kohler was impressively composed, a confident speaker who eloquently outlined her writing life and the themes she wanted to explore in this novel. Immediately likeable and highly engaging, Kohler had me hooked and I wanted to dive into this novel straight away. A few months have passed since that night and I’m gutted I waited so long to get to The Outside Lands. (Blame my excessive TBR pile and summer holidays.)

A shattered family

This book is extraordinary. It is set in 1960s America and begins with a nuclear family – father, mother, daughter, son – shattered by the accidental death of the mother. It passes through the decade, as Jeannie (the daughter) gets married and becomes a mother, Kip (the son) joins the army and heads to Vietnam, and the father struggles to cope with life as a widow.

Kohler’s novel is steeped in impeccable Americana. The tone, language (she uses “fanny” to describe the rear not frontal anatomy) and sensibilities (race and gender inequality, fear of those crazy hippies and equal mistrust of ‘The Man’) were pitch perfect. It was Mad Men with a bit of Revolutionary Road washed down by a Coca-cola.

The trials of warfare

The plot effortlessly mixes domestic dissatisfaction with the trials of warfare. We see Jeannie struggle to find her place in the world as a wife, mother and lover, while Kip is imprisoned in Vietnam for the attempted murder of his commanding officer. To gather information that might support Kip’s case, Jeannie visits the CO, Tom, in his hospital bed and a fascinating relationship starts to emerge between the two. (I’ll stop with the plot details; I don’t want to ruin it for you.)

The narrative style Kohler uses is highly effective. Each chapter is from a different point of view – Jeannie, Kip or Tom – and often transcribes the same scene with subtle differences that delve deep into the motivations of each character. It gives the text pace, multiple dimensions and endless layers that are stripped back page by page as the protagonists face their demons.

Complex themes are woven throughout the text. Gender roles are imploded by the death of the mother, and Jeannie struggles with the expectations of being a 1960s matriarch; holding the family together whilst preparing a pot roast dinner and supporting her husband’s burgeoning medical career. She is referred to as being from the ‘Outside Lands’ and ill prepared to face the horrors of war but is, in fact, the only one who proactively embarks on freeing Kip from his Vietnamese jail.

Heartbreaking sacrifice 

Familial burden and expectation weigh heavily on the characters, from atoning for their sins to living up to the achievements of the military men gone before. Personal desire, ambitions and hopes are set aside in heartbreaking sacrifice.

[Jeannie] took a breath – breathed in Tom’s sick, musky smell – and knew that if she couldn’t save Kip, she could do his penance.

This is such a beautifully written novel. It is sensitive without being saccharine, challenging of the status quo without protest, and its characters accept their fates with a sombre dignity that masks real distress.

It is deftly crafted and stunningly delivered; if this is the standard of Kohler’s first novel I cannot wait to read the rest of her work.

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