O Caledonia

This edition printed in:

A calico tabby stares directly up at the view with bright yellow-green eyes. O Caledonia lies beside her.

And Then Work Explodes

We finally had a normal week, but then, near the end of it, work basically exploded. The thing about freelance is that you are usually on a constant hunt for work — the holy grail of which being the mythical ‘steady and reliable client’. Especially with inflation and the high cost of living, we have been both agreeing to nearly every editing job that comes our way and actively looking on job boards for new prospective clients. It hasn’t yielded much in the way of results.

A cat lies beside O Caledonia. The book has a picture of a girl's face half-covered by a crow.

Then at the end of this week, one client gave us a rush deadline. Then another rush deadline. Then another rush deadline. A different client came back to schedule a project that starts next week — which means a contract has to be drawn up. Then the steady client wants to push forward a different project. It’s been so much that it’s making my head spin. And insert some overzealous hiking in the middle of that and it gets even harder to just a take a minute to breathe.

When freelancers say that sometimes it can be feast or famine, you’d best believe it, because it’s complete true.

A calico tabby intently pushes its little feet against the side of a book.

A Girl Out of Place

Elspeth Barker’s O Caledonia is a book I stumbled across while browsing through my local independent bookstore’s online catalogue. I love skimming the descriptions of all of the new books that arrive weekly, and I get especially excited when I see one that happens to be a re-print of a lost classic. Barker’s prose is sparse and powerful as she paints the portrait of Janet, a teenage girl that is struggling under the pressures that come with growing up female in the midst of the majesty of rural Scotland.

Though the plot might seem familiar, Barker does not pull punches and the result is an unsettling narrative about the expectations foisted upon young girls and how quickly they are expected to grow up. Janet is constantly berated about her awkwardness, her lack of interest in what are considered ‘female’ pursuits, and her love of the natural world. She seeks to define herself according to the person she wants to be, instead of the version of herself that others are trying to mold her into. Janet is a girl left to grow up with a heap of criticism and no guidance.

A calico tabby sits behind the open book O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker.

Parents and Children

At the heart of the miasma that Janet is trying to navigate are her fractured relationships with her family. Her mother never likes or loves Janet. She doesn’t even like older children. She pressures Janet to be interested in boys; she gets disappointed by Janet just being Janet. It’s a profoundly toxic relationship. Janet’s father is distant, her grandmother has passed on, and her grandfather has begun to get more distant as Janet has aged. Though she has siblings, Janet feels like an outsider from their fraternity since they happily fulfill most of their parents’ expectations.

A close-up of a book shows a portrait of a girl's face, half-covered by a staring crow. The title font is in bright red letters.

Disturbingly, Janet’s brother is left to his own devices as well and, when he shows awkwardness or strange interests, they are encouraged because he’s a boy. Though, unlike Janet, he shows signs of being disturbed and lacking empathy for any other human being or animal. While these signs are obvious, Janet’s parents are ignoring them.

The simple injustice of this unequal treatment is very grating and one of the most intentionally sickening aspects of the novel — as it should be. But it definitely makes for a read that isn’t for the faint of heart.

A calico tabby intently chews her paws with one paw on O Caledonia. The cat and book are lying on a lace knit shawl.

More than A Murder

I have to give kudos to Barker for having a great beginning to her book — that being the murder of Janet and the aftermath of her death. Starting at the ending is a bold choice, especially in this case when Janet’s murder isn’t the focus or point of the book. I have seen some of the marketing for O Caledonia zero in on it and, by doing so, imply that this is a mystery or a gothic novel. It’s not, and I think it’s rather misleading to try to fish for readers that way.

Elspeth Barker's O Caledonia lies beside a cat. The cover reads: O Caledonia, a novel by Elspeth Barker with an introduction by Maggie O'Farrell, author of Hamnet.

Barker has written a beautifully intricate narrative where the spotlight is on what common traumas women go through in the formative years of their lives. It’s about the impact of every little daily piece of sexism that many of us have had shoved down our throats from the cradle onwards. Every bit of rage, bitterness, horror, and fear are poured onto the page and that’s a difficult thing to accomplish. That’s what Barker deserves praise for.

I’m continually aghast that marketing sometimes takes a classic and spins it into a category it doesn’t fit into at all. It disappoints the reader and makes the literary scholar very, very angry.

A calico tabby looks away from a copy of O Caledonia.

Snowstorms in March

Today it was warm and sunny, and so I set out the complete set of birdfeeders, looking forward to seeing some birbs flittering around in the sunbeams. But then, suddenly — snow. Lots of snow. Snowstorm snow. Complete with travel advisory.

What?! I love the winter but the ups and downs of this particular year’s version of it has been ridiculously rollercoaster-y. I just kind of want the steadiness of some spring weather so that we can start to think about the garden and the theatre season. But that’s not going to happen this weekend, apparently.

That finishes off Women’s History Month for another year, but that doesn’t mean I’ll be leaving female authors behind. My stacks are usually dominated by women writers both past and present — a fact that always makes me happy.

A tortoiseshell cat lies beside O Caledonia. The back cover is visible, showing reams of praise.

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