Category Archives: Barker Elspeth

My favourites from a year in reading, 2022 – the books that almost made it

This December, I found it harder than usual to settle on a manageable number of titles for my ‘Books of the Year’ lists. In truth, there were very few disappointments amongst the 100+ books I read in 2022, partly because I tend to gravitate towards the mid-20th century for my reading. These modern classics have stood the test of time for a reason; in other words, they’re VERY GOOD!

As I looked back at this year’s reading, I found myself earmarking another eight books that didn’t quite make it into my final selections. All these books are brilliant in their own individual ways, and any of them could have easily found their way onto my ‘best of’ lists had I been compiling them on a different day. So, just in case you need yet another list of suggestions for your toppling TBR piles, here are books that almost made it. Enjoy!

Something in Disguise by Elizabeth Jane Howard (1969)

Back in October 2021, the Backlisted team covered Elizabeth Jane Howard’s 1969 novel Something in Disguise on their Halloween episode of the podcast. It’s a book I had read before, with somewhat mixed feelings. However, Andrew Male and Laura Varnam’s impassioned case for it being a rather sly, perceptive novel about the horrors of domestic life prompted me to revisit it with a fresh pair of eyes. Naturally, they were right! (How could they not be?) On my second reading, I found it much more chilling from the start, partly because I already knew just how painfully the story would play out for some of the key characters involved…The less said about the plot the better; just cut to the book itself.

Gigli, One of Us by Irmgard Keun (1931, (tr. Geoff Wilkes, 2013)

Irmgard Keun’s novellas always have something interesting to offer, and this striking portrayal of a determined young woman in Weimar-era Cologne did not disappoint. Right from the very start, I found Gilgi an utterly captivating protagonist, a strong feminist presence with a thoroughly engaging voice. In essence, the novella explores Gilgi (and the competing demands on her future direction) as she finds herself torn between two seemingly irreconcilable passions: her desire for independence and a successful career vs her love for the free-spirited Martin and the emotional fulfilment this delivers. Keun does a terrific job capturing her protagonist’s conflicted emotions, frequently in a state of flux. In many respects, this is a very progressive book. Not only is it written in a modernist style, but it also touches on several forward-thinking themes, including adoption, opportunities for women in the workplace, financial independence from men, sex outside of marriage, unwanted pregnancy, and the impact of debt on a person’s mental health. A thoroughly engaging book by one of my favourite women writers in translation.

The House of Dolls by Barbara Comyns (1989)

I have written before about my love of Barbara Comyns and the eccentric worlds she portrays in her novels – stories that combine darkly comic humour and surreal imagery with the realities of day-to-day life. The setting for this one is a Kensington boarding house during the swinging ‘60s, a time of great social change. Amy Doll, a widow in her mid-thirties, has four female boarders – all middle-aged or elderly, all divorced or widowed and cast adrift from any immediate family. Low on funds and in need of support to pay the rent, the ladies have turned their hands to a little light prostitution, fashioning a sort of ‘lounge’ for elderly gentlemen in Amy’s gold and crimson drawing room. The story follows the progress of two of these women, Berti and Evelyn, as they try to survive. Dolls is a charming, wickedly funny novel with some serious themes at its heart – how sometimes our hands are forced by unfortunate circumstances, e.g. loneliness, poverty, abandonment or adversity. An underrated Comyns that deserves to be better known.

O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker (1991)

First published in 1991 and more recently reissued by Weidenfeld & Nicholson as part of their W&N Essentials series, O Caledonia was Barker’s only novel. 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. Andy Miller (of Backlisted fame) described it as Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle meets Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, a description that rings true. There’s also a dash of Barbara Comyns here – Barker’s prose is expressive and evocative, portraying a world that combines the sharply recognisable with the macabre and the surreal. A kaleidoscopic, jewel-like novel with a noticable poignant touch.

Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks (1953)

Every now and again, a book comes along that captivates the reader with its elegant form and glittering prose. Maud Martha is one such book, painting an evocative portrait of the titular character’s life from childhood to early adulthood. Over the course of the novella (which is written as a series of short vignettes), we follow Maud Martha through childhood in Chicago’s South Side, her early romances as a teenager, to marriage and motherhood, moving seamlessly from the early 1920s to the mid-’40s. Gwendolyn Brooks has created something remarkable here, a celebration of resilience, grace, dignity and beauty – a powerful image of black womanhood that remains highly relevant today. I loved this book for its gorgeous, poetic prose and beautiful use of imagery. A wonderful rediscovered gem courtesy of Faber Editions, a fascinating imprint that always delivers the goods.

Last Summer in the City by Gianfranco Calligarich (1970, tr. Howard Curtis, 2021)

Another wonderfully evocative read – intense, melancholic and richly cinematic, like a cross between Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and the novels of Alfred Hayes, tinged with despair. Set in Rome in the late 1960s, the novel follows Leo, a footloose writer, as he drifts around the city from one gathering to another, frequently hosted by his glamorous, generous friends. One evening, he meets Arianna, a beautiful, unpredictable, impulsive young woman who catches his eye; their meeting marks the beginning of an intense yet episodic love affair that waxes and wanes over the summer and beyond. Calligarich has given us a piercing depiction of a doomed love affair here. These flawed, damaged individuals seem unable to connect with one another, ultimately failing to realise what they could have had together until that chance has gone, frittered away like a night on the tiles. This intense, expresso shot of a novella will likely resonate with those who have loved and lost.

The Cost of Living; Early and Uncollected Stories by Mavis Gallant (1951-1971)

A precise, perceptive collection of short stories by the Canadian author, Mavis Gallant. The very best of these pieces feel like novels in miniature; the kind of tales where everything is compressed, only for the narratives to expand in the reader’s mind on further reflection. Gallant is particularly incisive on the emptiness of suburban domesticity, the type of stifling, loveless marriage depicted in Mad Men and the novels of Richard Yates. Several of her protagonists – typically women – seem lost, cast adrift and unmoored in the vast sea of uncertainty that is life. Here we have stories of terrible mothers and self-absorbed fathers, isolated wives and bewildered husbands, smart, self-reliant children who must learn to take care of themselves. A top-notch collection of stories, beautifully expressed. 

Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro (2007, tr. Frances Riddle, 2021)

Shortlisted for this year’s International Booker Prize, Elena Knows is an excellent example of how the investigation into a potential crime can be used as a vehicle in fiction to explore pressing societal issues. In short, the book is a powerful exploration of various aspects of control over women’s bodies. More specifically, the extent to which women are in control (or not) of their own bodies in a predominantly Catholic society; how religious dogma and doctrines exert pressure on women to relinquish that control to others; and what happens when the body fails us due to illness and/or disability. While that description might make it sound rather heavy, Piñeiro’s novel is anything but; it’s a hugely compelling read, full of depth and complexity. When Elena’s daughter, Rita, is found dead, the official investigations deliver a verdict of suicide, and the case is promptly closed by the police. Elena, however, refuses to believe the authorities’ ruling based on her knowledge of Rita’s beliefs, so she embarks on an investigation of her own with shocking results…

So, that’s it from me until 2023. Have a lovely New Year’s Eve, with very best wishes for the reading year ahead!

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)