O Caledonia was originally published in 1991 and was reissued last year with a new introduction by Maggie O’Farrell. I’d never heard of this book before but saw it at the bookstore. The cover looked like it would be suitably dark for a Halloween-ish read, and it is. This book might be for you if you enjoyed I Capture the Castle (Dodie Smith) or We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Shirley Jackson) as, like those two novels, it features a teenaged protagonist living in a dark and drafty castle. This novel is set in 1950s Scotland in the castle Auchnasaugh (which translates as “the field of sighing”) and features a very smart but socially awkward and emotionally distant girl named Janet. When we meet Janet, she has been murdered, her bloody body slumped at the bottom of a staircase, arrayed in her mother’s best dress. This is not a “whodunnit” though. This story aims to show us why her family seems to be not terribly moved by the death of the daughter who had “blighted their lives.” Getting to know Janet is the journey here. She can be selfish, cruel, pathetic, thoughtful, and sensitive. She’s a teenager.
Janet is the oldest of five children born to Vera and Hector during WWII. In childhood she was close to her brother Francis, but that friendship waned as they grew older. Janet was never close to her three younger sisters and seems to be the polar opposite of them. While they were fair and sweet, Janet is dark and moody. She prefers books, poetry and living in her own wild imagination to spending time with others. Given their remote castle, it is rather hard to make friends and it is not until she attends a girls boarding school much later that she has a chance to socialize with her peers but seems unable to do so. She does not care for sport but loves animals. She is freakishly good at her studies, thanks to a father who thought she should be given the same education as boys when she was little. Her mother doesn’t care for her much at all, although shortly before Janet’s death, when the girl made an effort to act more “girly”, it seemed like perhaps they might have a breakthrough. Really, the only member of the household that Janet cares about and who seems to care a bit for her in return is Lila, the widow of her father’s cousin Fergus. Lila is a very interesting character — Russian born, she drinks too much and smokes, and she prefers her own company, spending her days collecting mushrooms and painting with only her cat for company. Lila and Janet have a bit in common, but the one time Janet tries to do something helpful for Lila, it backfires horribly, ruining that relationship.
The chapters go through Janet’s life in chronological order, and we see the little girl who desperately wanted positive attention but didn’t get it, who resented her younger siblings (she even tried to bury her baby sister under leaves and dirt when she received the gift that Janet had wanted; it’s kind of funny the way Barker describes it), and who loathes the idea of boys, marriage and babies. Her own family finds her odd and makes fun of her, which hurts Janet when she is revealing her thoughts to them and hopes for a better reception. The one time the family seems able to come together as a cohesive unit is when they have unwanted houseguests — the bright, sunny, cheery Dibdins. That chapter is a highlight for me, because the fact is, as weird as Janet may seem, the rest of her family is not exactly “normal” either. They just think they are. They are, in fact, pretty horrible and self absorbed themselves.
Toward the end of this brief novel, Janet has two important revelations about herself. One is related to her character:
“…the nature of Caledonia was a pitiless nature and her own was no better. 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 the people she knew?”
The other revelation is related to a boy she sees at a Latin/Greek spoken verse competition. Janet feels the first pangs of love, and like many other teenagers, she gets carried away by it. Sadly, her overactive imagination, which has often caused her trouble in the past, will also be related to the last moments of her life. Really, the revelation of who committed the murder is beside the point. Janet, for all her annoying ways and faults, was an intelligent and interesting person who just didn’t fit in anywhere.