November 1963 – a month that many remember for the assassination of John F. Kennedy. For Jeannie, 19, and Kip, 14, however this was the month their mother died, leaving them alone with their father. Their mother’s death has a significant impact upon the whole family, and Jeannie drops out of her typing school, becoming lethargic and reluctant to leave the house. Eventually pushed into a job as a waitress, she meets student doctor, Billy, and the two marry when she falls pregnant.
Kip, meanwhile, gradually goes off the rails, and starts hanging out with some troublemakers, and eventually ends up in court where he is given an ultimatum – return to school and toe the line, or join the Marines for the Vietnam War. Against all sense and advice, it takes the latter option.
The Outside Lands switches perspectives between Jeannie and Kip from the time of their mother’s death and through their adult lives, focussing mostly on 1968 when Jeannie is looking after her young son and Kip is in Vietnam.
I wanted to like this novel so much more than I did – I thought it had great potential, and I’d heard great things about it before I read it. And whilst it does start well, I found that it became a little flat as it progressed – there were times where it was an effort to keep going. The main problem for me, I think, was Jeannie. She seems to go through life without making any decisions for herself, and seems happy to follow other people’s suggestions as to how she should live her life without necessarily doing what she wants to. I wanted her to show a little backbone and to take charge of her own life for once. She does actually begin to do this towards the end of the novel, but it was too little, too late for me.
By far the best parts of the novel were those that concentrate on Kip’s experiences in the Vietnam War. I found these sections to be incredibly evocative of the environment in which these young men were stationed. The fear of attack, the struggles with the environment and the climate and the occasional tedium that these men faced is all effortlessly portrayed by Kohler, who doesn’t seek to glorify war in anyway.
Overall, I found The Outside Lands to be a little disappointing, although not without its merits. I think that it will be very interesting to see what Kohler goes on to do next – she’s definitely a writer to watch.