On a windy night, at the foot of a set of stairs in a run-down mansion buried deep in the Scottish highlands, the body of a young woman is found. Her name is Janet; she’s dressed in her mother’s black lace ballgown. Outside, in the stormy skies, a jackdaw flies in search of her. He seems to be the only one who misses her.
I had never heard of this 1991 novel, but I’m so glad I did. It’s a small gem; that rare combination of lofty prose and character development and readability. Barker’s prose is spellbinding and Janet is a compelling protagonist, though the true hero of the novel is the Scottish countryside in all its bleak, relentless glory.
Janet is not well liked by her family. She’s not a boy, like her brother, so her father has condemned her to a second-rate existence from the get-go; and not pretty, feminine and nurturing, like her sisters. She’s well-intentioned, but somehow always makes the wrong choices in the eyes of her family, who regard her with a wry, dour sort of duty that compels them to do the bare minimum, but not much more. Janet’s bleak Calvinist upbringing leaves no room for her fanciful imagination; Janet, a studious bookworm, loves nothing more than to read, despises sports and social gatherings and is exceedingly bad at them. Instead, she prefers to roam the countryside. Her allegiances lie with literature and nature. Her mother’s insistence to force her into the constraints of society are thwarted in various ways; Janet is inevitably car sick on drives to the city, and any refined clothing will end up torn and stained in no time. Janet doesn’t do this on purpose; it just happens. She tries halfheartedly, fails, gives up and returns to the things that bring her joy.
It’s a slim volume and though the novel starts with Janet’s death and ends with the who/why/how, the novel isn’t about her demise. It’s about a girl, ill-suited to the human environment she grows up in and how she copes. It paints a vivid portrait of a misunderstood young woman in a complex, layered fashion.
This is Barker’s first and only novel; sadly, she passed away in April of this year. In more than one way, the fact that O Caledonia is her only novel is a shame because I would have loved to read more of her work. But it’s also fitting; it’s a one of a kind book full of love and wonder and I cannot recommend it enough.