O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker

Maybe some people are just born with the deck stacked against them, and no matter the good intent of their efforts, nothing can change anyone’s bad opinion of them. Take poor Janet, from the late Elspeth Barker’s only novel O Caledonia. A clumsy, bumbling child with frizzy hair and no social skills, even her own family found her unpleasant company. When the poor girl was murdered at age 16 in the family’s highland home, despatching her body and being shed of her was their one concern.

Only her pet jackdaw was left to mourn, dashing himself against the castle walls.

” She recognized in herself a distaste for people, which was both physical and intellectual; and yet she nurtured a shameful, secret desire for popularity, or at least for acceptance, neither of which came her way.”

– O Caledonia

O Caledonia is an absolute joy of a novel, smoothly flowing, at times poetic, with a nasty satirical bite. Like Austen’s Northanger Abbey, Barker makes merry with gothic conventions, while taking the opportunity to wax lyrical about silly young girls whose heads have been turned by books.

Though the story begins with a murder, this is neither mystery nor thriller. Strange as it sounds, the poor girl’s death isn’t the point but, rather, the culmination of a series of events starting from her birth and ending in her premature demise. The young misanthrope was never long for this world, a point the novel drives home very effectively through scene after dire scene featuring a not always well-intentioned Janet. In one particularly hilarious scene, while her mother drives them to the dentist her younger sister – the literal golden child of the family – inexplicably falls out of the car. Grabbing the door and pulling it closed, Janet’s only thought was, essentially, oh god, I hope I don’t get blamed for this. Then, when instead of going out for tea and cakes they turn around and take her bruised sister home, Janet is frustrated and resentful.

Not a pleasant girl, granted, but still not sure she deserved a stabbing. Call me irrational.

As the oldest, Janet’s robbed of any hope of parental love as a series of increasingly adorable, perfect children are born. Fed up with being occasionally expected to help out, when charged with bringing her baby sister in from the rain Janet grabs the infant by the head, dragging her out of her pram then through the mud by whatever limb she managed to get hold of. Inevitably, she was punished, and rightly so, but no effort she made ever paid off, so why even bother?

I could see her point.

Barker does show some sympathy, allowing her one consoling friendship with cousin Lila, a fascinatingly eccentric, witch-like character whose continued residence at their inherited home, Auchnasaugh, comes as a requirement stipulated in the will of the uncle who granted her family the property. A hermit who may despise people even more than Janet, Lila nevertheless welcomes the girl into her dark and strange little cottage on the grounds of the castle – at least for a while, but nothing good ever can last for the poor thing.

“Vera (Janet’s mother) had hoped, when they first came to Auchnasaugh, that Lila might wish to help with the children; she visualised her as a cross between a doting and quaintly dotty aunt and an eccentric family retainer, who would know her place but find fulfillment in a modest share of their family life … Lila had countered by dropping cigarette ash in the baby’s cot and providing a steaming bowl of daffodil bulbs cooked in parsley sauce for the children’s lunch, claiming that they were onions.”

– O Caledonia

Elspeth Barker was a journalist and book reviewer whose life bore a striking similarity to her main character’s. Raised in Drumtochy Castle in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, like Janet’s father, Barker’s also used their home to house a preparatory school for boys. It’s not a stretch to imagine young Elspeth whiling away her time in books, though I certainly hope her family didn’t despise her and the boys weren’t as nasty.

Drumtochty Castle, Elspeth Barker’s childhood home

O Caledonia set the bar high for my reading year and I hope it’s a sign of good things to come. It’s earned itself a perfect 5/5 and I’ve already shifted it to the re-read list.

Fans of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle would probably love this book. Speaking of, I should re-visit that one, too.

The Scottish Highlands setting really sealed the deal for me, as if I wouldn’t have loved the wretched, book-obsessed anti-heroine in any environment. I just wish Elspeth Barker had had time to write more novels, and I’m keen to track down her book of essays and reviews, Dog Days, which doesn’t seem to be available anywhere – believe me, I’ve been checking.

Like Janet, I’ll keep soldiering on, despite being an incredibly irritating human being.