Elspeth Barker’s novel O Caledonia is set in post WWII Scotland, but the dense gothic atmosphere breathes a sense of timelessness into this amazingly visual tale. The book opens with the death of its protagonist, 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.
So the questions which remain are why was Janet murdered? Who is the murderer? I’ll add here that this is not a crime novel, but a Gothic novel, and Gothic novels are wrapped in mystery, secrets and … yes crime.
From this astonishing beginning, the book then goes back in time to Janet’s birth. Born in Edinburgh during the war, she is the first child in the family and others follow quickly. Janet’s father, Hector, inherits a remote castle from an uncle with the agreement that Hector’s Aunt Lila continues to live there. Auchnasaugh, as the place is called, was once the residence of Scottish kings. Surrounded by moors and a forest, Janet believes it “held all the enchantment she had ever yearned for.”
Janet is the ugly duckling–the unattractive one. Hers is a lonely, isolated childhood but she fills the spaces with this wild place and her imagination.
She nurtured a shameful, secret desire for popularity, or at least for acceptance, neither of which came her way.
There are very few people in Janet’s social circle: her disinterested parents, Jim the gardener who sadistically murders any animals he finds, Miss Wales “the choleric cook” and potty Aunt Lila. Lila, a Russian exile, spends her days reading, drinking and painting in the company of her ancient “balding” decrepit cat, Mouflon, who was responsible for the premature death of Lila’s husband. In this household, Janet connects to Lila–perhaps because Lila is also a misfit but has grown old enough not to care.
Throughout the story there are acts of hideous cruelty–towards people and animals. This is so finely woven into the tale that the casual cruelty is seamlessly embedded into life. Janet fills this world with finer, better things:
Only the red earth of the hill tracks retained its colours; the puddles looked like pools of blood. Of all the seasons this was the one Janet loved most. In the afternoons she would ride up through the forest onto the lonely moors; she felt then, looking into the unending distance of hills ranged beyond hills that if only she had the courage to go on, like True Thomas, might reach a fairyland, another element, the place of the ballads, of “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.” But as the light ebbed away to a pang of sullen gold on the horizon she would turn back.
We see into Janet’s creative mind as she salves her emotional wounds with books and trudges across the moors with her beloved pet jackdaw. Janet is eventually shipped off to boarding school and while for many children, that is an institution that strips away all individuality and produces young adults with uniform thinking, for Janet it is a “two-dimensional existence.” Life is only real at Auchnasaugh. While Janet may seem like an uninteresting lump to her parents, to this reader I wished she would make her way to adulthood where perhaps she could define life on her own terms. Thanks to Jacqui for pointing me towards this book. I loved it.
The Gammell family crest is a pelican pierced with an arrow–same motto.
2 responses to “O Caledonia: Elspeth Barker”
Wonderful stuff, Guy! I’m really delighted to see that you enjoyed this one so much. That opening is terrific, isn’t it? Right up there with Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle in terms of impact and mood.
Interesting question when one genre becomes another, is it crime or gothic or gothic crime? Was Dracula hardboiled gothic crime?
I think I have probably gone too far with the comment. I will try reading the book instead; thank you for the review.