WITH A NEW INTRODUCTION FROM MAGGIE O'FARRELL
Janet lies murdered beneath the castle stairs, oddly attired in her mother's black lace wedding dress, lamented only by her pet jackdaw...
In this, her first novel, Elspeth Barker evokes the unrelenting chill of Calvinism and the Scottish climate; it's a world of isolation and loneliness, where Barker's young protagonist turns to increasingly to literature, nature, and her risque Aunt Lila, who offer brief flashes of respite in an otherwise dank and foreboding life. People, birds and beasts move in a gleeful danse macabre through the lowering landscape in a tale that is as rich and atmospheric as it is witty and mordant. The family motto - Moriens sed Invictus (Dying but Unconquered) - is a fitting epitaph for wild, courageous Janet, and her determination to remain steadfastly herself even as events overtake her.
In this ebulliently imaginative cross beween bildungsroman and fable, Barker makes magic with both her language and her subject. Janet, the protagonist, is born in Edinburgh during WW II. Her inattentive, eccentric parents, after a course of alternately baiting and tolerating their daughter, finally leave her to her own devices--serious mischief, books and the isolation of a misunderstood intellectual adolescent--while they increase their fold by four more offspring. By then the family has moved to a sprawling old castle in the lonely north of Scotland called Auchnasaugh (``the field of sighing''). Darker intimations of mortality mix with childhood escapades as Barker's quick, urbane narration and high-flown, wicked humor convey as well the passions and pain of her protagonist. The fate awaiting Janet in the final pages, though clearly foretold in the preface, comes with a shock, as this entrancing first novel, winner of Britain's David Higham Prize, casts a spell that will make readers willingly forget what they know.