Title: O Caledonia
Writer: Elspeth Barker
Publishing House: Weidenfeld Nicolson
Date of Publication: March 29th 2022 (first published August 19th 1991)
Rating: 5 stars
‘’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.’’
In a remote castle in Scotland, in the years following WWII, Janet tries to survive a tumultuous childhood, an awkward transition to adulthood, siblings’ conflicts and a horrible notion of parenthood. Her strength is remarkable but Fate has decided. Who is responsible for this end? Why does no one mention the child? Why should her sisters keep their lament a secret when her jackdaw weeps for its spirited mistress?
‘’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.’’
O Caledonia is the dark tale of a child’s strength and determination to swim against the current, conquering a menacing and nurturing landscape. Juxtaposed with the innocent childhood of living in a fairytale world with witches, princesses, and knights is the trauma following the end of the Second World War. But what about the psychological wounds inflicted on a child by her own parents? Why is reading seen as a threat? When everyone fails you, books are there to comfort you. If you comply, you’ll have a ‘’better’’ life. But Janet burns too brightly for this world. ‘’Departing’’ is a form of liberation.
A primitive soul, a bookish-pagan child in a world of ‘’must’’ and ‘’mustn’t’’. In a world of hypocrisy and cruelty towards the ones who resist and prefer the company of themselves and numerous fictional characters who never disappoint you…
‘’Winter descended on the glen; in mid-October came the first thin fall of snow, gone an hour later in the wet wind. The deer ventured down from the hills at dusk, tawny owls shrieked as they hunted through the darkness and shooting stars fled across the night sky. Leafless, the beaches and ashes shivered; the grass was parched with cold; pine and monkey-puzzle stood black and dominant. Only the red earth of the hill tracks retained its colour; the puddler looked like pools of blood.’’
Rich in beautiful descriptions of the Scottish nature and the changing of the seasons, populated with beloved Scottish ghosts from kelpies to the haunting footsteps of Macbeth, witches and dark fairies, with the howling wind echoing in the glens, under the silver moon, O Caledonia is immensely atmospheric. It is a fable in the heart of the 20th century with a powerful heroine and a horrible cast of characters. Caledonia is not a place for idle souls…
‘’Lady, weeping at the crossroads
Would you meet your love
In the twilight with his greyhounds
And his hawk on his glove?’’