Sunday, October 24, 2021

O Caledonia - Elspeth Barker

Ali Smith's quote on the cover of this book is that it's 'The best least-known novel of the twentieth century" and Maggie O'Farrell says in her introduction that she's built friendships on a shared love of this book. I'd never heard of it before seeing it come into the bookshop, but it's definitely one of the best novels I've read without hearing anything about beforehand, and I'd be willing to bet that anybody else who liked it was worth getting to know too. 

Elspeth Barker is better known as a journalist and critic, 'O Caledonia' is her only novel, published in 1991 when she was 51. It will appeal to people who like Shirley Jackson, Molly Keane, and maybe to lovers of 'I Capture The Castle' but there's a darkness about it which does not belong in Dodie Smith. It's also the perfect slightly gothic but not a ghost story for Autumn.

We start with the corpse and then the burial of Janet. Sixteen found sprawled "in bloody murderous death" wearing her mother's black lace evening dress, halfway down the grand staircase of the family castle. From there we go back to the beginning of Janet's life and follow her to the end of it. 

The eldest of five eventual siblings Janet is unfortunate to have neither beauty nor any particular grace. She's a clever but unlovely and unloved child. The sort who can never do right for doing wrong - who doesn't tell anyone when her sister falls out of a moving car because she's frightened of the row she'll get. Her brother and sisters have the charm and looks that Janet lacks and if their parents don't particularly love or understand them any better, they at least work as a family.

For Janet life is a series of misunderstandings and casual cruelties. She loves the castle her father inherits, cold, inconvenient, and in places dangerously near-derelict as it is. The school he makes of it, and initially makes her attend, is filled with boys eager to bully a girl and eventually to sexually intimidate her. Janet can more or less take care of herself though as an incident with a patch of giant hogweed and a boy who has exposed himself to her prove.

I fell in love with 'O Caledonia' on page 3 when Barker describes a plate of rock buns "assembled on snowy doilies, malignly aglitter with the menace of carbonised currents." Janet is a concentrated version of every one of us who has ever cared too much, felt misunderstood, confused, awkward, ugly, and above all alone - which must surely be every adolescent that has ever been.

There's a dark humor that runs through the book, splendidly gothic or baroque moments - such as Janet's mother painting the hooves of a pony gold in the dining room. The pony is a birthday present for Janet's sister, and Janet jealous on behalf of her own pony frustrates her mother by explaining how the paint will surely poison the animal. This is the other part of Barker's genius; as much as we relate to and sympathise with Janet, we also see how hard to live with she is. 

I'm not really going this book justice, but it's genuinely one of the best things I've read in ages. Barker isn't quite like anyone else I've read, though Molly Keane would be the closest (I think Barker is kinder) and anybody who like 'We Have Always Lived in the Castle' would surely like this too, though for all the gothic details Barker is less weird than Shirly Jackson. Definitely pick it up if you see it and try a few pages. 


  1. Sounds brilliant. Lucky you working in a bookshop!

  2. I read this a decade or so ago and return to it periodically. It is quite, quite brilliant, I think, and rates alongside Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour in my book!

    1. Yes! Molly Keane has to be the best comparison, they're different but there's a lot of common ground. I was blown away by this - best discovery of the year.