O Caledonia

 

 

 

 

O CALEDONIA

 

 

 

 

 

 

ELSPETH BARKER is a novelist and journalist. She
 
is the widow of the poet George Barker. She lives in Norfolk, close to her five children, and is a respected critic, writing regularly for
 
The Literary Review
. She published her first novel
–
O Caledonia
–
at the age of 51.
O Caledonia
went on to win four awards; it was shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize, and has achieved a long afterlife as a modern, unjustly neglected, classic of Scottish literature. As Lesley McDowell wrote in the
Financial Times
,
‘
Barker should be marked out as one of Scotland
'
s principal writers, but fashion and the politics of literary movements have skimmed over her. [She deserves] a new, properly appreciative audience.
' 

 

 

 

 

‘
Elspeth Barker
'
s is a wholly original literary voice.
…
In
O Caledonia
the reader finds unalloyed joy, and occasional winces, on every page.
'

(
The Independent
)

 

‘
Barker
'
s love of the classics, her focus on mothers and daughters, and her remarkable evocation of landscape, should mark her out as one of Scotland
'
s principal writers.
'

(
The Financial Times
)

 

‘
A poetic and passionate description of adolescence. The words sing in their sentences. A world is evoked that has shades of the Bronte sisters and of Poe
–
the misunderstood and brilliant child with secret and unseen companions, a misfit who develops into a brooding young woman
–
and so provokes her own fate.
O Caledonia
sets dreams and longing against Scottish righteousness and judgement, and the resolution is the blade of a skinning knife.
'

(
The Times
)

 

‘
O Caledonia
is like a bunch of flowers. Vivid images are handed to the reader one after the other and the colours are often freakish.
'

(
The Guardian
)

 

‘
Beautifully written
…
a remarkable debut, in a long and fertile tradition of Scottish writing.
'

(
The Times Literary Supplement
)

 

‘
A poetic and blackly comic account of an unhappy childhood in a remote setting, recreated so sensuously it makes you feel the wind on the heath
…
Exquisite.
'

(
The Independent on Sunday
)

 

‘
Witty, civilised
…
with ravishing descriptions of nature which manage to be simultaneously rapturous and precise.
'

(
The New York Review
)

 

‘
Animals, Sir Walter Scott
'
s

alert and wild

Caledonia, and literature are central to Elspeth Barker
'
s marvellously worked and wielded first novel. It is usually invidious to praise by comparison. But the love of words, the recognition of their power to give a pulse-beat to narrative, made me think of Djuna Barnes as I read, and re-read, for pleasure
O Caledonia
.
'

(
The Glasgow Herald
)

 

‘
O Caledonia
is a novel which, like its heroine, is unique.
…
Poetry flows as rich as blood through the veins of this narrative.
'

(
The Scotsman
)

 

‘
Janet
'
s shocking story is one of psychic unraveling, which Barker traces in profoundly seductive prose, extraordinary in its sweeping narrative force and haunted gothic beauty.
'

(
The List
)

 

‘
In the 150 pages of
O Caledonia
, there is barely a wasted word, and though it, too, participates of genre fiction
–
in this case, the Gothic
–
it wears the burden of form lightly enough to take advantage of it by confounding our expectations. Without apparent effort, it achieves what others flail at: It gives us goose-bumps from riding an intellectual roller coaster.
'

(
The Boston Globe
)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

O Caledonia
,
©
1991, Elspeth Barker

Introduction,
©
2014, Penelope Lively

 

This edition published in 2014

by Galley Beggar Press Limited

37 Dover Street,

Norwich, NR2 3LG

 

Typeset by Galley Beggar Press Ltd

 

All rights reserved.

 

The right of Elspeth Barker to be identified as

the author of this work has been asserted by her

in accordance with the Copyright, Designs

and Patents Act, 1988

 

This book is sold subject to the condition that

it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be

lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated

without the publisher
'
s prior consent in any

form of binding or cover than that in

which it is published and without a similar

condition including this condition imposed on

the subsequent purchaser

 

A CIP record for this book

is available from the British Library

 

ISBN 9781910296349

 

 

 

 

 

 

O CALEDONIA

Elspeth Barker

 

With a new introduction by Penelope Lively

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

INTRODUCTION

 

 

First published in 1991,
O Caledonia
was heaped with prizes – the Winifred Holtby Prize, the Scottish Book Prize, the David Higham Prize, and so on. Quite right too. It is a wonderful oddity – brief, vivid, eccentric, richly stocked with characters that leap from the page, written with ferocious zest and black humour. It is a story about adolescence, in one sense, but an adolescence so bleakly bizarre that it defies any such categorisation. The dreadful austerity of Auchnasaugh, Janet's Scottish castle home, the manic performance of her mother, the girl's own grim propensity for disaster, let alone her esoteric turn of mind, pitch the story into gothic territory, far from any conventional examination of what it is like to be a clever and disturbed teenager.

  There is hardly a plot; rather, a succession of scintillating scenes that establish this family – father, mother, Janet and her three siblings, with such ancilliary figures as Grandpa the minister, Nanny with her face like the North Sea, demented resident relative Lila. Dysfunctional is far too mundane a word for this family; it is a construct flourished for the purposes of the book, backdrop to Janet's own anguished, exuberant presence, resource for the flights of fancy, the shining language that are the book's great strengths.

  Everything is intense, emphatic, in
O Caledonia
. In a family row, words ‘bombed like hornets about the room'. Janet reads in ‘a voracious, feral manner'. She is much given to reading; fed up and bored at a hunt ball, sixteen by now, she extracts
Daily Life in Ancient Rome
from her evening bag. Some garden swings are ‘tall and angular as guillotines or gallows'. An old pram in which the cat has concealed its catches is ‘a sticky ossuary of parched bones mingled with fur, feathers and the sullen reptilian sheen of rats' tails'.

  Plenty of cats, rats, fur, feathers and slaughter at Auchnasaugh. Janet reflects on man's inhumanity to man and beast, dominating a world of ‘vicious anarchy and disgrace'. She seems to revel in such thoughts, along with a passionate response to the glories of the physical world – a far cry from the preoccupations of the average teenager. So that it is something of a relief when she rejoices in a particular dress for that ball. But the dress is – of course – purple, festooned with massive bows and a scalloped train like a dragon's tail.

  We know what will happen to Janet from the first page; in the beginning is the end. Yet such is the onward thrust of the book that you somehow forget this, and the high drama of the climax still comes as a shock. This curious bookend treatment of the story is part and parcel of
O Caledonia
's innate individuality. The book is sui generis – a novella with an effect quite out of proportion to its length, that creates a place, a climate, a group of people that linger on in the mind long after the last page is turned. The language glitters, the characters are both outrageous and entirely credible, the Grand Guignol conclusion is exaggerated but also poignantly apt. Janet could never have grown up, you feel – she has to be forever locked in that special intensification of girlhood.

 

Penelope Lively 

 

 

 

 

O Caledonia! stern and wild,

Meet nurse for a poetic child!

Sir Walter Scott

 

 

 

 

 

JANET

 

 

Halfway up the great stone staircase which rises from the dim and vaulting hall of Auchnasaugh, there is a tall stained-glass window. In the height of its Gothic arch is sheltered a circular panel, where a white cockatoo, his breast transfixed by an arrow, is swooning in death. Around the circumference, threaded through sharp green leaves and twisted branches, runs the legend: ‘Moriens sed Invictus', dying but unconquered. By day little light penetrates this window, but in early winter evenings, when the sun emerges from the backs of the looming hills, only to set immediately in the dying distance far down the glen, it sheds an unearthly glory; shafting drifts of crimson, green and blue, alive with whirling atoms of dust, spill translucent petals of colour down the cold grey steps. At night, when the moon is high it beams through the dying cockatoo and casts his blood drops in a chain of rubies on to the flagstones of the hall. Here it was that Janet was found, oddly attired in her mother's black lace evening dress, twisted and slumped in bloody, murderous death.

She was buried in the village churchyard, next to a tombstone which read:

 

Chewing gum, chewing gum sent me to my grave.

My mother told me not to, but I disobeyed.

 

Janet's parents would have preferred a more rarefied situation, but the graveyard was getting full and, as the minister emphasised, no booking had been made. They had long before reserved a plot for their own ultimate use at a tiny church far off on the high moors; there was scarcely room for Janet there either, and under the circumstances they could not feel they wanted her with them. Her restless spirit might wish to engage with theirs in eternal self-justifying conversation or, worse still, accusation. She had blighted their lives; let her not also blight their deaths. And so, after her murderer had been consigned to a place of safety for the rest of his days, and grass had grown over the grave, Janet's name was no longer mentioned by those who had known her best. She was to be forgotten.

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