Gil Adamson starts her debut novel in madness and then pushes the reader headfirst into the torrid Canadian wilderness of 1903. Adamson rolls out luxuriant prose in "The Outlander," dunking in the rivers and rolling in the moss under the forest canopy, all the while chasing her heroine, known for most of the novel simply as "the widow," farther from the scene of her crime and further into the arms of the unforgiving outdoors.

These twin hammers -- insanity and a Cormac McCarthy/Ernest Hemingway style of moving through the harsh natural world -- help make "The Outlander" a heady, adventurous novel. Although the widow remains frustratingly elusive to the reader, Adamson plants a number of charming and chilling characters in the woman's path. Ultimately, "The Outlander" has just enough soul to make the novel satisfying and just enough harshness to make it satisfyingly unsettling.

The widow, Mary Boulton, is fresh from killing her husband when we meet her, but Adamson refrains from laying out the grim details. Instead, she focuses on Mary's flight from justice, doling out details of the killing in teaspoonfuls of flashbacks. It would have been emotionally easy for Adamson to immediately introduce the widow as an abused wife who killed her husband in self-defense, but it soon becomes clear that Adamson is describing a different "women's issue": post-partum psychosis. During her flight, Mary hallucinates haunting people and images, but her mind clears slowly throughout the story, allowing the reader to experience her recovery in a very tangible way.

As the madness wanes, the story moves from dark tragedy to adventure. Mary is alone in the wild and Adamson's prose shimmers: "It was a bright, soft morning. In the sun, the air was warm enough for bare skin, while under the trees the mare's breath blew into vapour. An arctic chill crept the boundaries of each shadow and gusted from the deeps of the woods. The widow rested her feet in front of her and stared down at the white and blue toes."

The starving, nearly dead widow is discovered by William Moreland (based on a real person), a fellow outcast from the civilized world with whom Mary recovers and has a brief, torrid, romance-novelesque relationship. But the Ridgerunner, as Moreland is known, leaves her one day, and Mary is again at the mercy of the forest. Luck and the good graces of an Indian named Henry bring Mary into the town of Frank, a mining village, where she keeps house and chaste company with the warm-hearted Reverend Bonnycastle. Gathering strength both mental and physical, the widow weaves herself into the town's daily life.

But there remains the slow dawning of what she has done, not to mention her husband's creepy twin brothers (giant redheads), who are tracking her like unblinking robots bent on retribution. Before "The Outlander" concludes, the widow will face her brothers-in-law, a catastrophic disaster, the tent- kindled and unfinished passion with the Ridgerunner, and the morbid gravity of womanness as it is expressed in childbirth.

Although this is Canadian writer Adamson's first novel, she has published a wealth of poetry and short stories, and her experience is obvious in the breadth, maturity and scale of "The Outlander." This novel has been rightly compared to the works of McCarthy and Charles Frazier, but the undeniable presence of the female in body and spirit runs through every sentence. Mary is at times a cipher, known mostly through what she has suffered and how she reacts to the people she meets. And though the Ridgerunner is believably sweet and compelling, his appearance, disappearance and reappearance in Mary's life feel a tad contrived for a novel that is otherwise lacking in conventions -- romantic or otherwise.

As a whole, "The Outlander" is a masterwork of precision-crafted prose married to an innovative chronicle of recovered sanity. It's a deep, brilliant and textured work. And while it cribs from the Western-loving boys, it's a story that could be told only by a woman.

Former Minnesotan Cherie Parker works at Idle Time Books in Washington, D.C. She blogs at