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A Superior Spectre

January 5, 2019

/Angela Meyer, A Superior Spectre, 2018

a-superior-spectre-coverAs I read A Superior Spectre, I became so attached to Leonora, one of the two protagonists, that I woke during the night, worrying about what would happen to her, angry at the people who caused her harm.

Leonora’s world is her father’s farm in the Scottish Highlands during the 1860s. She loves her cairn terrier, Duff, and all the farm animals. She has learnt from a neighbour how to shift and deliver a calf. She loves the woods, the wildlife, the burns, and the deep soil of the farm. Whenever she can, she reads – Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, Byron.

She is happy, living the life that she wants, but her father insists on sending her to live with her aunt in Edinburgh, in the hope that she will find a husband. On the farm she can be herself, but away from the farm she struggles with society’s restraints, the requirements of properness.

Leonora’s story comes to us through Jeff, the other protagonist. In 2024, suffering a serious illness, he leaves Melbourne and travels to Scotland to confront himself and the terrible things he has done, and then to die. He has decided not to have treatment that would prolong his life.

Jeff has brought with him a newly-developed drug, which allows the user to enter the consciousness of someone else, a “host” from the past. When Jeff uses the drug, he enters the mind of Leonora. He feels what she feels, sees what she sees, touches what she touches. He experiences her menstruation and her orgasm when she masturbates.

Jeff was warned not to visit the same host more than three times, but he ignores this advice and returns again and again to Leonora. He becomes addicted, not to the drug but to being someone who isn’t him.

Leonora feels his intrusion, and twenty-first century images completely outside her nineteenth century experience enter her mind. She feels haunted – is she going mad?

The narrative alternates between Leonora and Jeff. Leonora always kept me engrossed, but sometimes I was impatient with Jeff, with his self-absorption and carelessness, and I looked forward to getting back to Leonora. Both characters feel completely real, but Meyer’s creation of Leonora is a triumph.

Meyer’s other outstanding achievement is her recreation of 1860s Scotland, both the Highlands and Edinburgh, and the first stirrings of changes in the roles of women, exemplified by female medical students, and in the treatment of mental illness, which was becoming slightly less inhumane.

The novel raises questions about voyeurism. Jeff is the ultimate voyeur, with no remorse for his invasion until he realises the harm he is doing to his host. Technology has provided many tools for voyeurs. What happens if telepathy becomes possible in the future? How would we manage such a development?

A Superior Spectre is beautifully written, and was an excellent choice to begin the 2019 reading year. Leonora and her story will stay with me.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 13, 2019 9:00 pm

    Great and clear, write-up Bryce. I agree that Leonora is a wonderful character that you come to care about. She’s intelligent, questioning, but of her era. Excellent point about voyeurism. I hadn’t thought of that, but of course you are right.

    • Bryce permalink*
      February 16, 2019 9:14 am

      Thanks. Sue. And I enjoyed your review, which prompted me to look more deeply at the novel, for example, considering the concordance between structure and meaning.

      • February 16, 2019 4:00 pm

        It’s fun seeing the different ways we “see” books isn’t it. Your voyeurism, as I said, has added a wonderful layer to my reading.

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