Elspeth Barker's is a wholly original literary voice. O Caledonia, first published 20 years ago, reads as freshly now as then. Steeped in classical allusions, rich in Scottish – and natural – history, fantastical in its highly wrought characters, this coming-of-age-novella is as passionately intense as it is wittily acerbic.
It opens, seemingly, with a murder and a suicide. Beneath the great stone staircase of Auchnasaugh and the leaded stained glass window emblazoned with the family motto Moriens sed Invictus, "Janet was found, oddly attired in her mother's black lace evening dress, twisted and slumped in bloody, murderous death." Her death is followed by that of the tame jackdaw, which "like a tiny kamikaze pilot... flew straight into the massive walls of Auchnasaugh and killed himself".
Desire and mortality, lovers and rivals, seething emotions and impulsive actions, are writ large across the pages reprising Janet's 16 years of life. O Caledonia is relayed in language as baroque as any Scottish castle, crammed with alliterations and associations, subjunctives and imperatives. When Janet reads, she "turned the pages in a voracious, feral manner as though she were rending the limbs of some slaughtered beast". At home, "The bath water, never more than tepid, was now constantly cold, and flooding burns and reservoirs seeped rich red mud into the pipes so that the pipes seemed to pour forth blood."
Propelled by the sheer force of words, the horrors and humours plunge on, observed by an eye both youthful and perspicacious. Dogs furiously mate; weasels rip the throats out of rabbits, then curl up with the semi-devoured carcass. Everything – animal, vegetable, man-made – has a malign aspect.
A change of scene follows: the Highlands of Barker's childhood are replaced by the Norfolk Coast (and, occasionally, France) of her maturity. In these stories, she bookmarks earlier characters – including Mother (in "Packing for India"), a remarkable account of a dying memory, of crossing the Ganges, and mourning the loss of her red shoes. The sharpness of O Caledonia's opening returns with that of "The Dance": "Jennifer was a mordant child. Her first memories were of biting and gnawing." We know that little bodes well in this, but we can't wait to find out more, and greet the flick of the tale's tail (that final sentence) with a grimace of satisfaction. The reader feels unalloyed joy, and occasional winces, on every page.