Reviews, Scottish Reads

O Caledonia

Janet lies murdered beneath the castle stairs, attired in her mother’s black lace wedding dress, lamented only by her pet jackdaw…

Author Elspeth Barker masterfully evokes the harsh climate of Scotland in this atmospheric gothic tale that has been compared to the works of the Brontës, Edgar Allan Poe, and Edward Gorey. Immersed in a world of isolation and loneliness, Barker’s ill-fated young heroine Janet turns to literature, nature, and her Aunt Lila, who offers brief flashes of respite in an otherwise foreboding life. People, birds, and beasts move through the background in a tale that is as rich and atmospheric as it is witty and mordant. The family’s motto—Moriens sed Invictus (Dying but Unconquered)—is a well-suited epitaph for wild and courageous Janet, whose fierce determination to remain steadfastly herself makes her one of the most unforgettable protagonists in contemporary literature.

This book came to me with very high recommendations. I bought this book maybe a year ago but I just forgot about it until my friend basically told me to stop what I was doing and pick it up. My pal was right, this book was excellent!

This is a very underrated Scottish modern classic which focuses on the life of a doomed protagonist. Doomed because the book started with our protagonist, Janet, being found dead at the bottom of a staircase. Not just dead but she was murdered. The book then went through Janet’s life from birth until her death at the age of 16.

Janet grew up in a Scottish castle in the 1940s/50s. We got to read about her family life and the way that the dynamics between her and her family members changed as the family expanded. Janet was the oldest child and, according to the narrative, the least favourite.

Janet rejected the expectations put upon her. She didn’t enjoy socialising and struggled to make friends. She didn’t seem overly concerned about her lack of friends, she didn’t have anything in common with her peers and she just wanted to be left alone to tend to her animal companions and read her books.

I enjoyed the way that this book started with the reveal of her murder as this enabled me to be able to try to work out whodunnit. When the reveal came, I was surprised. I was looking for hints and I hadn’t been able to work out who the killer was. So this really came as a shock!

I really enjoyed the setting. The atmosphere of this book was almost gothic. The castle, Janet’s home, was draughty and a little creepy. The castle wasn’t necessarily haunted but it very much could have been. I loved that some parts were off limits and this made me want more books set in this house.

Janet felt like such a likeable character! I could see why people found her hard to get along with but I liked her. Hi loved her relationship with her cousin Lila. Lila was a loner with an alcohol problem. She kept herself to herself and her only companion was her beloved cat. I felt like those two got on so well because they shared so many characteristics.

I really enjoyed this book and I can see myself rereading this book. I may even annotate the book next time, and I rarely do that! I just feel like this book deserves more love.

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