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What to Read: O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker

On our honeymoon, my husband and I stopped into an Oxfam bookshop in Edinburgh. I was in the mood for some local culture, so I spent a considerable amount of time browsing the Scottish section. After much deliberation between a charmingly personal history of whiskey and a Penguin paperback for young adults about a murdered girl named Janet. I chose the latter, and I’m so glad I did.

O CaledoniaO Caledonia is a wonder of a book. It was Elspeth Barker’s first novel, and she wrote it long past the age when most novelists launch their writing career (or so I assume from the author bio at the front of the book, in which we learn that was the mother of five children and the widow of poet George Barker when she published it). I realize that it might have been the product of long labor, of writing and rewriting, perhaps spread over decades, but it doesn’t feel like that at all. It feels like it gushed fully-formed from the author’s pen, like Athena from the head of Zeus—a marvel. It won a number of Scottish literary awards when it first appeared in 1991, and it was shortlisted for the Whitbread Book of the Year First Novel Award.

The story rolls along at a pleasing pace, but some of the images Barker conjures were so arresting that I had to pause for awhile, to truly absorb what I had just read before I could continue. Sometimes, I had to read aloud to Ted. Consider this, for example:

Now that Janet and Frances were older, Grandpa would let them visit him in his study, where the parrot lived. Grandpa came from a long line of parrot-keeping men, and Polly’s predecessor, a white cockatoo, had fought with Wellington’s armies in the Napoleonic Wars. Janet’s father’s earliest memories were of the astonishing oaths known to this bird, who was then a hundred and two years old and spoke in ripe gamey accents long since gone from the world of men. Grandpa believed that there must be a fair number of such long-lived birds in Scotland—even perhaps in England—and it would have been a fine thing to have them all gathered in a great dining hall, invoking ghostly midshipmen and dragoons, violent drinkers and merry rhymesters, perhaps even occasionally a lady of refinement. This, he said, would afford a historical experience of rare value; indeed, ancient parrots should be fêted and cultivated as true archivists.

When I pulled this book off the shelf, I was drawn to the creepily compelling cover, and to the quote from a Times review that compares the book to the work of the Brontë sisters and Edgar Allan Poe.

As I began to read, though, I found these comparisons facile. Certainly, this book was dark, but it did not seem to have much else in common with the work of these authors. In fact, the first writer who came to mind as I began this book was Beverly Cleary. Klickitat Street is worlds away from the wild, worn grandeur of Janet’s home and the thuggish hothouse of her girls’ school, but her creator and Ramona Quimby’s share an ability to communicate a vision of childhood—particularly the inner lives of children—that reads utterly true. Both Cleary and Barker are able to admire their young protagonists—to love them, even, fiercely and tenderly—without dipping them in honey or—worse—dusting them with saccharine.

As the book progressed further into Janet’s adolescence, though, I realized that the comparisons to Poe and the Brontës—Emily, at least—were indeed apt. As a writer, Barker shares Poe’s Gothic paranoia—his sense that horror is not merely certain, but ever-present and always triumphant—and Emily Brontë’s terror of growing up. Becoming a woman is just as dangerous for Janet as it was for Cathy, and its inexorable inevitability gives it the weight of Greek tragedy—womanhood becomes a fatal flaw.

None of this is to say that O Caledonia is depressing in any modernist, unfortunately realist kind of way. It is, rather, bleakly honest, and therefore sardonically hilarious, awesomely moving, and devastatingly uplifting.

O Caledonia is also, unfortunately, not all that available in the United States. As of this writing, however, there are a few copies available at the redoubtable Powells, though, and a listing on Amazon that may or may not lead you to a used copy.

September 9, 2004 | Permalink


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