I hadn’t heard of Elspeth Barker until in the last few months her only novel O Caledonia featured regularly in various monthly book stack photos on Twitter, and then my curiosity was piqued. Having now read it, this book blew me away and is sure to find a place in my year end list.
There’s a scene in the final pages of the novel, when Vera, the mother, takes Janet, her eldest daughter and child to a shop to select a dress for the hunt ball. Having turned sixteen, Vera is keen to launch Janet into society, and the hunt ball has been planned for this very purpose. Despite the strained relationship between Vera and Janet, Vera harbours hope, however slim, that this shopping expedition might just turn out to be an occasion for bonding. Vera chooses a beautiful white delicate gown for Janet to try on, but Janet is unhappy. Instead, she selects a loud purple dress that Vera thinks is hideous but which she accepts with resignation, a reminder that the gulf between mother and daughter will forever remain unbridgeable.
Enamoured by purple, her absolutely favourite colour, Janet loves the dress and genuinely believes it to be an expression of her individuality and she does stand out at the party but as a figure of scorn rather than of admiration.
This, then, is the fate to always befall Janet in Elspeth Barker’s O Caledonia, a brilliant, immersive, haunting tale of an intelligent often misunderstood young woman who unable to conform to societal expectations seeks solace in books, animals and her wild, vivid imagination.
The book opens with an arresting scene in an isolated Scottish castle. The play of filtered light on the stained-glass window refracts a splash of vibrant colours on the great stone staircase. And at the bottom of the stairs lies Janet clad in her mother’s black evening gown “twisted and slumped in bloody, murderous death.” Regarded as a difficult, troublesome girl by her family, she is soon forgotten, but the only living creature who pines for her is Claws, Janet’s beloved jackdaw who mournfully roams around her room searching for her in vain only to finally die (“At last, in desolation, like a tiny kamikaze pilot, he flew straight into the massive walls of Auchnasaugh and killed himself”).
The rest of the book then is a flashback that spans sixteen years as the reader is given an account of Janet’s short, turbulent life and the events leading to her death.
Janet is the first child born to Hector and Vera in wartime on a “fog-bound winter night in Edinburgh.” Once Hector is called away to the front, Vera moves with Janet to an Edwardian mansion by the sea owned by Hector’s parents. From an early age, Janet displays a lively imagination, an aptitude for books and learning and a special bond that she shares with her grandparents, especially the grandmother. But as the family keeps expanding, Janet is quickly sidelined and her fiery, rebellious nature increasingly makes her feel like an outsider within her own family. In subsequent years, Francis is born, and then Rhona to be followed by Lulu and Caro and Janet becomes contemptuous of her siblings failing to attain any kinship with them.
The fact that Janet is sometimes an awkward girl, clumsy with the tasks thrust upon her often instigates the ire of her mother and Nanny, a strict, God-fearing nurse employed to look after the children. Surrounded by a family that fails to understand her because she refuses to bend to its set, conformist ways, Janet turns inward, seeking refuge in her books and her thoughts, and developing a keen love for animals. The feeling of isolation only heightens, when her grandmother, the only family member she was very close to suddenly dies.
But then the war is over, and the family subsequently moves to a solitary Scottish castle called Auchnasaugh, a property left to Hector by his uncle on the condition that his cousin Lila is allowed to stay on there. Hector has no problem with the arrangement, but Vera is livid though helpless to do anything about it.
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 central heating system roared up and the pipes shuddered and the Aga top glowed infernal red. Then the jackdaws would explode in a dense cloud from their hiding places on the roof and float on the high wild air crying warning and woe to the winter world. ‘A gaunt place,’ said the village people, and they seldom passed that way.
Vera detests Auchnasaugh, but Janet loves it passionately. The remoteness and solitary quality of the castle reflects Janet’s state of being, the sense of aloneness she experiences even amongst people.
Indeed, for her Auchnasaugh was a place of delight and absolute beauty, all her soul had ever yearned for, so although she could understand that many a spirit might wish to return to it, and she hoped that in time she too might do so, she felt the circumstances and mood of such visitations could only be joyous. She had no fear of its lofty shadowed rooms, its dim stone passages, its turrets and towers and dank subterranean chambers, dripping with verdigris and haven to rats. So running now down the narrow twisting road through the forest, she looked forward to the moment when it dropped to the dark, secret glen, where the great hills rose steeply on each side and halfway up one of them, hidden by its trees, stood the castle.
She is most comfortable in the company of her eccentric cousin Lila – a despondent, lonely whisky-swigging woman accused of being responsible for her Russian husband’s death and branded as an outcast. Lila’s narrow world is defined by her filthy room (a den of discarded food and assorted bric-a-brac among other things), heavy drinking and a passion for growing mushrooms and other forms of fungi, and her raggedy cat Mouflon. For the most part, Lila stays out of the family’s way, but an occasional presence only fuels Vera’s anger further.
About the room were many other desiccated trophies bracket fungi like Neanderthal livers, long-dead roses in jam-jars green with algae, bracken and rowan berries hung in shrivelled swags round the mirror frames, straw hats pinned to the walls, dust lying heavy on the brims, turning their wreathed flowers a uniform grey. The crumpled rugs s bore a patina of cigarette ash, the ashtrays brimmed, books lay open on the floor and tables, stained with coffee, dog-eared and annotated. These books were in Russian, for Lila, like the Heraclea, originated there.
If Janet had her way, she would have happily continued to stay on in Auchnasaugh, but that is not to be. She is sent to a boarding school, St Uncumba’s, for further studies where her sense of isolation only deepens (“But nothing could assuage the cold, familiar dereliction of night in the dormitory, with the sea below the cliff and the sea wind whipping the sleet against the windows”). Despite what she perceives as a claustrophobic, two-dimensional world, Janet finds within her a way to survive, but she is forced to admit much to her dismay that even to be accepted by her classmates is to pander to their expectations. She cannot flower or let her own personality develop because that would make her an object of ridicule. For instance, Janet abhors sports, but those showing a prowess in games are lauded, while on the rare occasion when Janet displays her keen intelligence, she is immediately made to pay for being a show-off.
Janet began to hate the sea. There was so much of it, flowing, counter-flowing, entering other seas, slyly furthering its interests beyond the mind’s reckoning; no wonder it could pass itself off as sky; it was voracious marine confederacy. She saw how it diminished people as they walked along the shore; they lost their identity, were no more than pebbles, part of the sea’s scheme. Once there had been a great forest below the cliffs; there the hairy mammoth had browsed and raised his trunk and trumpeted. There had been mountain crags and deep, sweet valleys of gentle herbivores. The sea had come and taken them.
In Janet, Elspeth Barker has created a wonderful, brilliant character – nonconformist, dreamy and a misfit within the conventional boundaries of society. She is a doomed young girl but her fierce determination to remain true to herself and staunch refusal to be molded as per the dictates of others makes her utterly remarkable. A deep love for reading, an alternate world conjured up by her imagination and an intense fascination with the natural world propels her forward when all else around her seems bleak. She is drawn towards Lila, because she is subconsciously aware of how similar they are, how they are shunned by so-called “normal” people. And yet, as she grows older so does the raging conflict within her – although she hates people and the idea of being sociable, there’s a part of her that desires to be accepted and included, but on her terms and not theirs.
Loneliness, a troubled mother-daughter relationship, sibling rivalries, the feeling of being an outcast within your own family and a misfit in society, a lone woman’s struggle for acceptance, the yearning to live life on your own terms are some of the major themes featured in O Caledonia articulated in a style that is so original and striking.
The biggest highlight of O Caledonia though is Barker’s stunning writing. It’s truly a feast for the senses dotted with rich, kaleidoscopic imagery, lush language, dazzling manner of expression, and haunting dreamlike vibes. For instance, there’s Nanny bearing down “with a face like the North Sea.” A purple silk flower has “petals lapped in all shades of mauve, violet, heliotrope.” At the beach, the children run on “the mirror-bright sand filmed in water”, and the beach itself “spread in a great curve, fringed by mournful dunes.” There’s the giant hogweed grove at Auchnasaugh, whose great heads of flowers “swayed in menace against the windy sky and its serpentine stems reared triumphant and rutilant.” During a particularly exquisite summer Janet watches the “silent golden day bring glory to the sombre pines.” And then the view from Janet’s dormitory window “where the grey sea imperceptibly merged into the grey sky” that was like “living at the end of the world.” Here’s another example…
Fuller’s was the good thing about trips to the dentist. With faces frozen by the sleety wind and the jaw-scrunching needle they would step from the you granite street and the granite sky into a warm lamp-lit haven. The carpets were pink and dense so that moved soundlessly; there were no windows; you could forget the outer world. Teaspoons clinked on porcelain saucers, tiered stands shone, laden with the snowy glory of Fuller’s walnut cake. Reverently the waitress raised the silver dome from a fragrant mound of buttered toast, flaccid and dribbling with amber rivulets.
Deeply atmospheric with a trancelike quality, O Caledonia is steeped in gothic overtones – a draughty, solitary castle perched atop a hill in the wilds of Scotland; the vast, immense, unyielding sea that heightens Janet’s loneliness; lonely moors; wintertime accentuated by shrieking owls, leafless beeches and a hush, stark landscape. A gorgeous evocative mood piece, O Caledonia pulsates with elements that are reminiscent of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and even Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour.
O Caledonia, then, is a poetic and beautiful novel, an ode to individuality, nature and literature with an unforgettable heroine at its heart. Highly, highly recommended!