What fun she would have as a ghost

Dear Elspeth,

Who can resist an awkward, introverted misfit with a wild imagination and a tragic fate? Janet, your protagonist in O Caledonia (1991), is a girl who reads too much and never fits anywhere: her parents ignore her, she gets bullied by her schoolmates, and her only friend is a jackdaw who insists on repeating “never mind” instead of Poe’s “nevermore”.

The story opens at its end, with a murder and a suicide. Sixteen-year-old Janet is found stabbed to death, “oddly attired in her mother’s black lace evening dress”, beneath the stained-glass window on the stone staircase in her parents’ decaying castle, to the sound of Gluck’s Orpheus.

According to the locals, the girl has brought death upon herself. Her parents feel actually relieved that she is gone, and even prevent her from being buried in the family plot. Janet goes unmourned, except by her pet jackdaw, who commits suicide shortly after her death, by throwing himself, “like a tiny kamikaze pilot”, into the walls of the castle.

The story then jumps to the past, when Janet is about three, and we learn what happened to her from then on. Our protagonist was born in Edinburgh during WWII, while her father was away. She is the eldest of five children, born in quick succession, after the end of the war. The family then moves to a decrepit ancestral castle on the northern coast of Scotland, where the girl grows up. The castle is called Auchnasaugh, which means “the field of sighing”, and, like its name suggests, it is situated in a windswept, bleak landscape. Our Janet is immediately taken by the wild, austere beauty of the place.

Our protagonist loves engaging with nature and with books. She is intent on learning Latin and Greek, and reads a lot, turning “the pages in a voracious, feral manner as though she were rending the limbs of some slaughtered beast“. Her imagination will be both her salvation and her undoing.

She is a lonely child: Janet has more success in interactions with beasts than with human beings. Her jackdaw, her pet rat, the slugs in the garden, her grandfather’s crazy parrot, even Aunt Lila’s ancient cat understand Janet better than her family and her schoolmates (whom she describes as a bunch of philistines).

Caledonia is the Latin name for most of the area that is now Scotland, and the title of the book is borrowed from Sir Walter Scott, in The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), Canto VI, Stanza 2: “O Caledonia! stern and wild,/
Meet nurse for a poetic child!/ Land of brown heath and shaggy wood,/ Land of the mountain and the flood,/ Land of my sires! what mortal hand/ Can e’er untie the filial band,/ That knits me to thy rugged strand!”. Your Janet is a darkly comic twist on Scott’s poetic child.

The book’s atmosphere nods to Wuthering Heights, Janet has a touch of Dom Quixote, her jackdaw is a twist on Poe’s The Raven, the narrative voice has something of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and the story even borrows a madwoman in the attic from Jane Eyre.

Aunt Lila, the Russian widow of a cousin of Janet’s father, also lives in (or perhaps haunts) the castle. Lila is a bit of an eccentric: she collects fungi, makes potions, have secret meetings with a lover or two, and has a fondness for whisky and for her bald cat. Some say she has “had her sorrows”, others think she is a mad witch. She is rumoured to have poisoned her husband. Needless to say, our Janet finds in Lila a kindred spirit, and an equally doomed one.

And all I lov’d—I lov’d alone—“, we read in Poe’s Alone, but we could also be talking about your Janet: she can never really explain to others the things that make her life meaningful. Maybe she is mad, maybe she lives in a parallel world fuelled by books. Her imagination borders on self-delusion, and she is endearing to the same extent that she makes us cringe. Hers is a funny story, a sad story, a lonely one. A story so full of a strange love gone wrong, unnoticed, uncommunicable, almost ridiculous – like a kamikaze bird wasting itself against the walls of a crumbling castle.

Yours truly,

J.


A Saint, from the ‘Jackdaw of Rheims’, by Briton Riviere, 1868

“She would live out her days at Auchnasaugh, a bookish spinster attended by cats and parrots, until that time when she might become ethereal, pure spirit untainted by the woes of flesh, a phantom drifting with the winds. What fun she would have as a ghost. She could hardly wait.” – Elspeth Barker, O Caledonia

*

“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.” – Elspeth Barker, O Caledonia


About the book

  • Penguin Books, 1992, 152 p. Goodreads
  • Galley Beggar Press, 2014, 160 p. Goodreads
  • First published in 1991
  • My rating: 5 stars
  • Literary Awards: Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize (1991), David Higham Prize for Fiction (1992)

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