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O Caledonia

4.11  ·  Rating details ·  170 ratings  ·  25 reviews
The sixteen years of Janet's life begin on a fogbound winter night in wartime Edinburgh. Her father, home on leave, peering into the blue wicker basket, comments, "It's about the size of a cat." Later, as sibling after sibling appears, Janet finds herself slipping further and further toward the periphery of family life. Brought up in the unrelenting chill of Calvinism and ...more
Paperback, 152 pages
Published 1992 by Penguin Books (first published August 19th 1991)
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Average rating 4.11  · 
Rating details
 ·  170 ratings  ·  25 reviews

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Shawn Mooney (Shawn The Book Maniac)
In sentences bursting with images and perfectly audacious words; in paragraphs that unfurl book-length narratives; with quirky characters deeply familiar as if spun from dreams; Elspeth Barker tells a simple, sad, joyous story of Janet, an odd duck of a Scottish girl, understood by no one, a misfit who only feels truly alive in spasms of communion with books or the natural world. My delight in her was just this side of a cringe. Unforgettable.
Aug 08, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A chilling and lyrical portrait of the inner life of a misunderstood young girl, confused and bewildered by the ways in which she fails to fit into the world. The narrative is episodic rather than a tightly-woven arc, strobing moments in young Janet’s life on a suitably Gothic Scottish crag — the birth of a little sister who is an instant rival, a glimpse of a mutilated animal, the incomprehensibility of schoolmates. But the episodes build in a crescendo of frustration. Each mixed message that J ...more
Mar 23, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: books-read-2017
A beautifully written coming of age story set in the north of Scotland. Very gothic, I started this book thinking it would be some kind of murder mystery, although it starts and ends with a murder, it's really about the life of Janet from an early age until her death at 16. Janet is a wonderful misunderstood young girl, as well as her story I found animals and the countryside to play a big part in this novel. I'd say the animals and countryside as well as her old family home are her only true fr ...more
Aug 24, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I had incredibly high hopes for O Caledonia, and hoped it wouldn't disappoint. It did not; in fact, it is certainly one of the best coming of age stories which I have read in quite a while. Startling, vivid, intriguing, and marvellously Gothic. Troubled Janet was a fabulously crafted character, and I was so entranced as soon as I began to read her story. I loved Barker's prose style, and the delicious darkness to the whole. O Caledonia is a mesmerising and incredibly well crafted novel, with a marvellous and surpr ...more
Kobe Bryant
Sep 14, 2018 rated it it was amazing
So many great sentences on every page
Dec 04, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This is a short gem of a book and should be read in one sitting so you can be enveloped in the whole Gothic setting of 1940's Scotland. The writing is beautiful. It's a coming of age story of Janet who initially is not very likable but she grows on you. Loved the unexpected wry humor.
Cameron Trost
Sep 23, 2015 rated it it was ok
"O Caledonia" is a short, beautifully written book whose prose is pleasant and evocative. The problem is that one expects a novel to have a story - some form of plot - and this one doesn't. Halfway through, the reader is still waiting for something to happen, and that, especially in a short novel, is just no good.
Aug 26, 2014 rated it really liked it
Going to see this author talk in September and so read the book in preparation, not expecting to like it. However I was very pleasantly surprised. A gloomy, gothic tale of a childhood in the north of Scotland.....very readable
Mar 15, 2011 rated it really liked it
A year later I still think about this book when I am feeling like the shadow of a moody, Scottish girl.
Aug 25, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I've read this 4 times!
Jul 27, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A really lovely special book, sad, but wonderfully vivid, vibrant, full of colour, conjuring up one complete image after another so quickly and beautifully that you have to slow yourself down to make sure you appreciate how clever it is. A central character who seems unable to engage with people comfortably, has a sense that she cannot speak the idiom of 'girlishness', lover of books and natural surroundings, dark unruly frizzy hair, overly sensitive and a huge romantic...sounds like me!
Jun 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I loved it very much! A very atmospheric book, beautifully written, a bit dark and sad, yet wonderful.
Ruth Neese
May 24, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book begins and ends with a murder. In between, it is a coming-of-age tale about a girl growing up in post-WWII northern Scotland. The landscape is bleak and windswept and Janet is a misfit, a deeply introverted child marooned in a family of extroverts who decide not to understand her. She is in love with books and languages, not humans. Her home, a genteelly rotting estate called Auchnasaugh, is the only other love in her life.

The book tells the story of Janet's life in her voice from the
Sep 12, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: re-reading
Hmm. VERY interesting book. We learn on page 1 that 16-year old Janet has been murdered. But this isn't a murder mystery. Instead it's the story of misunderstood young girl as she grows into her early teens. Some classic growing up characters: the crazy aunt; the detached mother; the assorted siblings; the jovial but clueless father.

But a far bigger character is the Scottish countryside and its creatures. Janet is a romantic and an adolescent romantic at that. She made me smile and s
Feb 12, 2015 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I picked this book up at a library book sale, intrigued by the title, and while I found the author's use of language mesmerizing and often lovely, the story itself was so disturbing that I was repeatedly repulsed and sickened. At the end I felt as though I had been dirtied and steeped in purposelessness. I do not want to let darkness into my mind, nor feed the darkness that exists there already from living in a fallen world as a fallen human. I in no way want to disparage the writing prowess of ...more
Jul 27, 2018 rated it really liked it
Sad, but wonderfully vivid, vibrant, full of colour, conjuring up one complete image after another so quickly and beautifully that you have to slow yourself down to make sure you appreciate how clever it is. A central character who seems unable to engage with people comfortably, overcome by the sense that she 'cannot speak the idiom of girlishness', lover of books and natural surroundings, dark unruly frizzy hair, overly sensitive and a huge romantic...sounds like me!
Mar 18, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: favorites
"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."

Such a delightfully macabre little novel. Highly recommended for those who enjoy adolescence cast as ghastly tragedy, as in Wuthering Heights, or anything by Angela Carter.
Gina Lyle
Aug 23, 2015 rated it it was ok
Barker's novel has some very poignant moments, where Scottish life and childhood are eloquently captured in the life of Janet. Her prose can be lovely in spots, but ultimately I found the novel lacking. A few events felt hollow and unanchored in reality, meaning that the plot didn't pull together for me. Definitely worth a read, but not as satisfying a conclusion as I'd have liked.
Feb 19, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Love. There were so many passages in this book that I copied out to re-read in the future. I laughed out loud and felt so much sadness for everyone's failure to understand Janet. Best £2 charity bookshop spend ever :-)
Catherine Henderson
Jul 11, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Beautifully dark and Gothic. Dealing with the theme of the pain of adolescence against the harshness of religious and cultural judgement of the time. The main character is far from likeable but you can't help but empathise. So very Scottish. Wonderfully and evocatively written.
Jul 29, 2016 rated it liked it
I read this so long ago (the 90's) that I can't remember it all. I did like it so going with 3 stars. Just can't remember if I loved it or not.
May 28, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Can't get it out of my head.
Headley Mist
really weird novel about growing up and nobody understanding you in the dark wet and gloomy Scotland.

with no happy ending too.
Aug 12, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: some-favorites
Love this dark and witty book... and how it pokes fun at the Gothic!
rated it it was amazing
Jan 05, 2019
David Dixon
rated it really liked it
Apr 09, 2018
rated it it was amazing
Jan 15, 2010
Barbara Wildemuth
rated it it was ok
Sep 23, 2019
Elizabeth Dixon
rated it really liked it
Aug 09, 2017
Brendan M
rated it liked it
Nov 16, 2015
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Elspeth Barker is a novelist and journalist. She was educated in Scotland and at Oxford.

Barker's novel O Caledonia won four awards and was shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize. She has reviewed extensively and written features for the Independent on Sunday, Guardian, Sunday Times, Observer, LRB, TLS, Harpers & Queen, Scotland on Sunday, Country Living, Vogue, etc. She edited the anthology Lo
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“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.” 1 likes
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