O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker

I have to start by thanking Andy Miller for recommending O Caledonia during a previous episode of Backlisted, back in January, I think. It was introduced as Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle meets Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, a description that proved impossible for me to resist. Now that I’ve read the book myself, I can confirm that it definitely lives up to this billing, possibly with a dash of Barbara Comyns in the mix for good measure – The Skins Chairs and The Vet’s Daughter are the two that spring to mind.  

First published in 1991 and more recently reissued by Weidenfeld & Nicholson as part of their W&N Essentials series, O Caledonia is Barker’s only novel to date. it’s a dazzling gem of a book, rich in a wealth of vivid imagery – clearly the product of a highly imaginative writer with a sharp eye for detail and an affinity for outsiders. Ostensibly a coming-of-age narrative, the novel blends elements from a range of literary traditions from the Gothic novel to Classical Myths, skilfully weaving them into the fabric of the text.

Central to the novel is Janet, the eldest of five siblings – four girls and one boy – born in relatively quick succession at the end of the Second World War. We know from the opening page that Janet dies at the age of sixteen, found ‘twisted and slumped in bloody murderous death’ at the family’s rather forbidding home. However, the novel is not a murder mystery; instead, we are presented with an overview of Janet’s life, following a broadly linear arc from birth to death.

Barker wastes little time establishing the novel’s Gothic tone through a multitude of vivid descriptions, complete with touches of the macabre. It’s a world of glittering stained-glass windows, fox-fur tippets, jackdaws with crossed beaks, and animals nestling in prams.

As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Janet is something of a misfit, an outsider in her family, viewing the world differently from those who surround her. A fiercely intelligent girl with an active imagination, Janet is rather unconventional in her ways, unwilling to conform to her parents’ traditional Calvinist expectations. Other family members are frequently exasperated by her idiosyncratic behaviour, typically resulting in punishment for the girl. However, she often acts out of a lack of understanding, especially when young – something a more nurturing approach from her parents would sorely help to address.

The first few years of Janet’s life are spent at her grandparents’ Manse in Glasgow – the war is still ongoing, and Hector, Janet’s father, is away for the duration. Luckily for Janet, there is solace in the company of her grandfather, a kindly, protective man who enjoys telling stories in the peaceful atmosphere of his study. Here Janet finds some respite from the stifling routines of domestic life, the rules laid down by her mother, Vera, and the family’s longstanding Nanny.

In this room was a genial liberality absent from the outer household with its routine, its timetable of rests and walks and meals, its grim insistence on self-control and cleanliness, scratchy vests and liberty bodices, tweed coats buttoned tight around the neck, hair brushed until the scalp stung, then dragged back into pigtails. (p. 20)

When Hector returns from the war, the family moves to a dilapidated castle in the wilds of North Scotland – a property left to Hector by his uncle, provided that Cousin Lila is allowed to stay, a condition which Hector duly accepts. The castle is a cold, shadowy place, exposed to the fierce winds that swirl through the Highlands. But for Janet, this new environment is a source of great wonder and beauty. With her strong affinity for animals, she revels in her surroundings, riding through the glens on her beloved pony, Rosie. There are some glorious descriptions of the natural world here; Barker writes beautifully about the Scottish landscape, capturing the wildness and feral nature of the landscape alongside its undoubted allure.

With her love of literature and languages – skills nurtured initially by her grandfather – Janet finds comfort in books, allowing her imagination to roam freely despite other constraints. There is solace too in the company of Cousin Lila, another outsider of sorts with her various eccentricities and habits. Russian by birth and a consummate daydreamer at heart, Lila spends her days collecting mushrooms, painting pictures and drinking whisky. Her room is another means of escape for Janet, complete with its heady aromas and eclectic possessions.

In one corner of the room a low archway led into a turret and here Lila’s cat Mouflon slept on a pile of old fur coats draped ineffectually over a mighty stack of empty whisky bottles. The aromas of ancient tom and evaporating spirits combined with Schiaparelli’s Shocking and Craven A tobacco to create an aura of risque clubland. (p. 54)

Perhaps the biggest challenge for Janet comes during adolescence when she is packed off to a girls’ boarding school, far away from home. With her preference for the company of animals over people and her intense dislike of team sports, Janet finds it challenging to interact with the other girls, most of whom are interested in clothes, games and their families. Naturally, Janet doesn’t care for these things, preferring school work and books to spending time with the other pupils. Nevertheless, she develops some basic coping strategies to deal with the inevitable cold-shouldering, a consequence of her rejection of group activities in any form.

She had tried St Uncumba’s in every season, months without end, fogs impenetrable, cold, windy sunlight – and she found it wanting, wanting in human kindness, in vision, in apprehension of the glories of the world. But the raw, sheer edge of her misery was blunted; she had learnt to cope, even to survive, by deviousness, by reading, and, as always, by day-dreaming. (p. 144)

Janet is a marvellous creation, and Barker excels in conveying a piercing portrait of her protagonist’s inner life, replete with all its frustrations and pain. The novel is semi-autobiographical, partly inspired by the author’s childhood, making it all the most affecting to read. While Janet is very much her own person, someone determined to stay true to her values and principles, part of her craves understanding from others – or, at the very least, a degree of acceptance. Consequently, this novel will likely resonate with anyone who has ever felt like an outsider, at odds with their peer group or those in authority. The sense of loneliness and bewilderment can be heartbreaking to bear.

Barker has created such a colourful, jewel-like novel here, almost kaleidoscopic in terms of style and tone. Her prose is expressive and evocative, portraying a world that combines the sharply recognisable with a dash of surrealism – a little like the Barbara Comyns novels I mentioned earlier or the work of Muriel Spark.

I’ll finish with a passage about Janet’s pet jackdaw, Claws, who nestles in an abandoned doll’s house in his guardian’s room – a quote that tugged at my heart, especially given the arc of Janet’s story.

He was free to range wherever he wished; always he came back to her and at night they repaired to her room, where he roosted like a guardian spirit on the Iron rail of her bed. He was a magic bird. She loved him more than she had loved anything, anything or anyone. (p. 182)

24 thoughts on “O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker

  1. madamebibilophile

    Wonderful review Jacqui. It’s been a few years since I read this and the Gothic atmosphere has really stayed with me, just as you describe. I remember finding it a very sad read too, I felt quite teary at the end!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      So glad to hear you enjoyed it, Madame Bibi. I think the eerie atmosphere of it will stay with me too. It’s like a twisted version of I Capture the Castle with elements of Shirley Jackson and Barbara Comyns women in.

      Reply
  2. Daphna Kedmi

    Thank you so much Jacqui, what a great review! Read it, immediately opened Amazon, saw it for 1.07$ and I already have it on my Kindle.

    Reply
  3. gertloveday

    What a great discovery. I love the way Backlisted brings these unjustly neglected authors to light.
    I did a bit of a read around and discovered Elspeth is Raffaella Barker’s mother. One of five children she had with the poet George Barker( he actually fathered fifteen children.)
    Lovely review. Definitely on my list.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Absolutely! It came up in the conversation at the beginning of one of the episodes when Andy and John were chatting about what they’d been reading that week. In fact I wonder whether they might end up doing a whole episode on it at some point as it seems ideally suited to the show… It’s interesting to hear about the link to Rafaella Barker, too – I’m not familiar with her work, but it sounds as though you’re a fan?

      Reply
      1. gertloveday

        I used to love her books when they came out years ago. I remember Hens Dancing with great affection. Would be interesting to re read her work. Might be a bit too sweet for me now.

        Reply
          1. gertloveday

            AlthoughI I am presently reading her first book Come and Tell me Some Lies which is based on her own life and has some disturbing passages about drunken violence and irresponsible parents. I don’t think George was a great father. Too egocentric.

            Reply
  4. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review Jacqui! I was taken by the sound of this too when Andy mentioned it, and it’s lurking on my wishlist. I think it will be very much my kind of book, and I’m fascinated to hear that she was married to the poet George Barker, as he’s featured in my reading of Penguin Modern Poets and I believe had quite a wild life! Definitely intend to explore this book!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It really is excellent, definitely worth checking out. And yes, George Barker seems to have lived quite the life. I think Elizabeth Smart based a novella on her affair with him – By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. Have you read that by any chance?

      Reply
  5. heavenali

    Fantastic review, I am going to bustle off and buy a copy as soon as I can. Your referencing of Shirley Jackson, Muriel Spark and of course Barbara Comyns who I so adore has totally sold me. Reading your review, I can certainly see why those writers came to mind. That slightly odd gothic atmosphere is one I enjoy especially when combined with a coming of age story.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Definitely one for you, Ali. It’s got your name written all over it! I agree, there’s something very appealing about a coming-of-age story that takes place in a surreal, gothic setting. It’s partly the twisted fairytale quality that makes this so compelling. That and Janet’s character, of course – I think you’ll adore her!

      Reply
  6. Julé Cunningham

    One of these days I need to do some Backlisted catching up… A marvelous review, both the story and the character of Janet sound like wonderful creations! I’ve read one of Raffaella Barker’s novels, From a Distance, but have to admit it didn’t really stick with me. O Caldedonia looks really tempting though.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Jule. It really is a treat – and if you’ve enjoyed any of referenced authors (Dodie Smith, Shirley Jackson or Barbara Comyns), chances are it will work for you. Not long after I’d posted this piece yesterday morning I found out via Twitter that Barker had passed away, something that makes the novel feel all the more poignant…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, definitely. Ali will love this, I’m sure, and Karen may well find it interesting too, especially given the author’s link to George Barker…

      Reply
  7. 1streading

    As you know I’ve been looking back at books I read 30 years ago – one of which is O Caledonia, not long after it was published. Definitely time for a re-read!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I thought you might be familiar with this one, Grant! Sadly, Barker passed away recently (I found out not long after I’d posted this piece), so now would be a fitting time to revisit it.

      Reply
  8. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

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