As a chronic blurb avoider I go into many a book blindly. This is true for Elspeth Barker’s O Caledonia, a 1991 novel I haven’t seen reviewed before. So I opened this gothic tale of childhood loneliness not knowing what to expect and I was hooked from the first page.
The novel opens to a crime scene in the gothic castle of Auchnasaugh. Janet lies and the foot of the staircase, bloody, murdered in her mother’s black dress. Her death is briefly noted by the community, then moved on from as “the lass has only herself to blame.” To her parents, her death is as much an inconvenience as her life was. Her siblings would not dare to openly grief her loss. Only her pet jackdaw, her one true friend, is heartbroken by young Janet’s untimely death. Throughout her short life, Janet never managed to fit in and meet expectations. Despite her best efforts she stood out at home and at school, friendless and a disappointment to her family. Isolated as she is, Janet finds her only solace in literature and with animals. The grounds of the decaying Scottish castle she grows up in are home to many a species that most people would try and avoid. But Janet finds it much easier to befriend the creatures of the woodlands and meadows, her deep empathy allows her to connect to them unperturbed by social expectations. Humans with their curious customs confuse and alienate her. Yet she cannot avoid the restrictions placed on a girl growing towards womanhood by the Calvinist society of rural Scotland just after World War II. The female gender, and growing into all that embodies is a frustration to Janet. Boys are allowed to be wild and free, while the girls suffocate with expectation. She struggles and fights, then submits. She wants to be free and yet yearns for the acceptance that has always been denied her. But in this gothic tale we know from the opening page where her fight to be herself will end.
“She didn’t want to be a big girl. It seemed she was punished for something the which happened without her choice or knowledge.”
Elspeth Barker convincingly creates the gloomy atmosphere and harsh climate of 20th century Scotland. Set in these landscapes of dark beauty, is a tale of tragic adolescence and all the dangers growing up can pose. O Caledonia takes on a mystical quality, it is both unearthly and utterly earthy. Nature and animals are richly drawn, at times more real than the human protagonists. The narrative style creates a certain distance from the characters. Reading it invokes Janet’s jackdaw soaring through the sky above the castle grounds, looking down on the humans and their strange behaviours. The cast of characters is fascinating though distant, the only one we get to know is Janet. Janet, this wonderfully flawed dreamer, this young girls who wants to observe rather than perform in the world, who sees but is never seen for the gem of a person she is. Barker’s prose is astonishing. Her writing is fluent, verging on the lyrical, the kind that wants to be read out loud. Visual and visceral, her language creates images in an almost dream-like way. Hyperreal, in a sense. The plot itself is rather simple, with that kind of prose the novel does not need much to tell a convincing and heart-breaking tale.
“Auchnasaugh, the field of sighing, took its name from the winds which lamented around it almost all the year, sometimes moaning softly, filtered through swathes of pine groves, more often malign, shrieking over the battlements and booming down the chimneys, so that the furnace which fed the ancient heating system roared up and the pipes shuddered and the Aga top glowed infernal red.”