Following on from yesterday’s post about Anita Brookner who began her career as a novelist at 53, today I’m looking at another late debut writer; Elspeth Barker wrote this gothic novella at the age of 51. It concerns a teenager though: 16-year-old Janet has been found dead at the bottom of the stairs, dressed in her mother’s black lace evening dress, mourned only by her pet jackdaw who then kills itself, and her siblings. The novella then goes back in time over Janet’s life, but this is less a murder mystery and more of a character study.
Janet is an awkward child. She gets angry. She’s socially ill at ease. She has frizzy, unmanageable hair. She gets car sick. She irritates her parents. She reads a lot and is more clever than her classmates ,which causes distance. She is miserable and life is unfair. Her family don’t fit in where they are.
“Anger and outrage welled within her: she would speak the truth. ‘It was because of the witch. I wanted them to see if the witch was there,’ she wailed. ‘Don’t talk such nonsense; you know as well as I do that witches are only in fairy stories; and you read too many of those if you’d like my opinion.’ The mothers exchanged satisfied glances: they all thought Vera went too far in her choice of children’s reading; and she smoked cigarettes and wore slacks.”
Soon, however, they inherit an ancient, crumbling pile in the far north of Scotland, and Janet loves it:
“Auchnasaugh, the field of sighing, took its name from the winds which lamented around it almost all the year, sometimes moaning softly, filtered through swathes of pine groves, more often malign, shrieking over battlements and booming down the chimneys”
“She had no fear of its lofty shadowed rooms, its dim stone passages, its turrets and towers and dank subterranean chambers, dripping with Verdigris and haven to rats.”
It also has her eccentric aunt Lila, who wafts around dressed in black collecting fungi and incurring the wrath of Janet’s mother Vera; Jim, a taciturn odd-job man skulks around the place.
“It was a rigorous life, but for Janet it was softened by the landscape, by reading, and by animals whom she found it possible to love without qualification. People seemed to her flawed and cruel.”
So although Janet finds solace, she is still an outsider. Very much a loner and isolated at her boarding school. We follow her through the years and what emerges is a young life of a deeply awkward, lonely girl.
“What use was it to be racked by pain for animals and the general woes of the world when she was unmoved by the sorrows of people she knew?”
O Caledonia is thoroughly gothic so you need a pretty strong stomach at times – something I don’t have, particularly around animals. But it’s superbly written, startling and atmospheric.
Overall, I was left with a feeling of sadness. Janet has a lonely life and then before she’s had a chance to carve out anything better for herself, she is killed. O Caledonia really gets under your skin.