AUDREY WOLLEN ON ELSPETH BARKER’S O CALEDONIA

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Photo: Brian J. Green.

When I was a teenager, I was lucky enough to have a mother who pressed upon me Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle—a perfect book, perfectly timed. I press that book upon people now, but I know there are books that, although satisfying to read, are laced with a certain wistfulness—I found this too late, you think. Or worse, your recriminations turn outward: Why did nobody tell me? This could have saved me so much trouble! But what does that mean exactly? We want to toss the object back to our earlier selves, shimmering as it skips across the years. We want to have pocketed that little pebble of meaning or comfort long ago, to feel it already smoothed by our thumbing familiarity. We want to be visiting an old friend. If only we had met our sweetheart earlier, known the truth sooner. As usual, we chant the same simple request: More! Time! More! Time! But, in the immortal words of Diana Ross: You can’t hurry love. No, you just have to wait.

This year, I found O Caledonia (Scribner) by Elspeth Barker and immediately felt retroactively deprived, colluded against. Why did nobody tell me? Set partly in the decrepit towers of Auchnasaugh, a near-abandoned castle in the Scottish Highlands, partly amid the social horrors of the girls’ school St. Uncumba’s, O Caledonia follows Janet, our windswept, high-strung hero, from birth to untimely death. Right away, Janet is difficult, clever, endearingly bewildered, and shockingly defiant. As younger siblings accumulate behind her, increasingly angelic, and the landscape grows more ferocious and sublime, her idiosyncrasies become a balustrade, protection against the high ledge of friendlessness. A wounded jackdaw lives in her dollhouse, flying free and returning to her call. The antics of isolated girlhood in an impossibly big house always make for fantastic reading—see the aforementioned Dodie Smith, as well as Shirley Jackson, Molly Keane, et al. But underneath the comedy-gothic of Barker’s bildungsroman, she covertly offers some of the best nature writing I’ve ever read. I’m not sure I would have noticed it years ago. If you’ve ever wondered how the all-too-human technology of language can possibly describe something as variant, unseen, and overwhelming as the wind: Read this book.

Audrey Wollen is a writer from Los Angeles, living in New York.

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