I had heard good things about Angela Meyer’s debut novel, A Superior Spectre (Ventura Press 2018 Peter Bishop) but wasn’t quite sure what to expect – the blurb sounded like some strange genre-bending blend of historical fiction and science fiction. Two points: firstly, that is exactly what I got. And secondly, it hooked me and engaged me much, much more than I would have imagined possible. And I suppose that is because, like all good writing, this novel traverses the human condition, in this case exploring themes such as identity, belonging, death and dying, sexual desire, madness, feminism and friendship, all wrapped up in a shape-shifting, interconnected tale of the past and the future. And if that sounds far-fetched and audacious, well, it is. It is also highly imaginative and adventurous. The book takes risks, and the writing is thoughtful and thought-provoking.
In summary, the story is this: Jeff (from the unspecified future) is dying, and contemplating his life – his shameful desires, his failed marriage, his regrets. In a remote Scottish village, he escapes his ruminations through a piece of experimental technology that allows him to literally enter the mind and experience the life of someone in the past.
The simultaneous narrative is of Leonora, a poor Scottish woman living in the 1860’s, who is quite happily living her rural life surrounded by the animals she loves, until she begins to have strange visions, hear words she doesn’t understand, and imagine contraptions that have not yet been invented. As this possession seems to take more and more control of her mind, with physical repercussions, her own actual life is challenged and often limited by the social conventions of the day, her father’s new wife, and the fact that he sends her away to stay with her aunt in Edinburgh, supposedly to learn some airs and graces and perhaps catch a good match of a husband. With the death of her mother in Edinburgh (when Leonora was only five) haunting her, and with the fluctuating, unknowable presence that begins to invade her dreams and then her waking hours, she is driven to pursue answers for what might be disturbing her.
I note that answers are not always, or not easily, found; the book leaves much unsaid, and much to the reader’s imagination and interpretation.
This novel could easily have become a he-said / she-said narrative, bumping along awkwardly between two such different times. But Meyer seamlessly blends the two so that although at the beginning, we are clear about which character is which, by the end they have almost become the one person. Obviously, this raises all sorts of questions about identity, imagination, and artificial intelligence and technological ethics, but it is also a deep inquisition about how we as humans can ever fully know another person, their deepest dreams and desires, and explores the polarities and the politics of gender, age, social standing and intelligence.
If you loved Jane Rawson’s The Wreck, or Krissy Kneen’s An Uncertain Grace, both award-winning novels that combine a passion for science and the future with a curiosity about the past, then this book will appeal. And as with those books, the real connection for the reader in this story is the commonality of human feeling and an exploration of human flaws, needs, yearnings and ambitions.