I have never been to the Bruce Peninsula in Ontario, but reading Hilary Scharper’s Perdita has made me want to add it to my list of places to visit. The author has described her novel as ‘eco-gothic’, which I think refers to elements of nature almost taking the role of characters in the story (think of the fog in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House or the moors in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights) and she certainly does bring the beauty and atmosphere of her Canadian setting to life in Perdita.
The novel opens with Garth Hellyer of the Longevity Project collecting information on some of Canada’s oldest people. Having heard about some remarkable claims made by a woman called Marged Brice, Garth is visiting her in her nursing home in the hope of discovering the truth. Marged insists that she is 134 years old, but surely that can’t be right? Garth is cynical, but when Marged tells him that she is ready to die but can’t because of a mysterious presence known as ‘Perdita’ holding her back, he is intrigued enough to agree to hear her story.
Marged gives Garth some of her old journals, which he takes home to read, and through these the story of Marged’s life unfolds. In 1897, when her diaries begin, she is a young woman of nineteen living at Cape Prius on the Bruce Peninsula where her father is working as the lighthouse keeper. It can be a lonely place in the winter but comes alive in the summer when visitors begin to arrive. Among the summer visitors are the Stewarts, a wealthy family with two sons, one of whom – George – is a talented painter. With her own interest in art, Marged finds herself drawn to George, but will he ever return her feelings? And anyway, would Marged ever be able to leave the landscape she loves so much – the landscape which has become such an integral part of her life?
Well, circumstances dictate that Marged does have to leave her beloved bay behind, at least for a short period, while she spends some time in Toronto with her mother. By the time she returns she has changed and grown as a person; her world has widened, she has met different people – including Andrew Reid, a young doctor – and she has experienced things she would never have been exposed to on the peninsula. The rest of the novel follows the ups and downs of Marged’s relationships with George, with Andrew and with her environment, as well as exploring the presence of Perdita and who or what she really is. We also follow Garth in the modern day as he is reunited with an old friend, Clare, who helps him to make sense of Marged’s claims.
You won’t be surprised to hear that I preferred the historical storyline to the present day one. It’s not very often that I would say the opposite! Marged’s story was much more compelling, full of life and passion and emotion; Garth’s story, in comparison, felt as though it had been created just because a framing narrative was needed. He and Clare didn’t feel like real, fully-developed people to me and every time we returned to their storyline, I just wanted to get back to Marged and her diaries.
I liked the Perdita and longevity aspects of the story, which bring in some elements of mythology and some literary allusions, but I was less convinced by the blending of the real and the supernatural. For me, Perdita was a collection of intriguing ideas that, as a whole, I couldn’t quite manage to love. It seems to be Hilary Scharper’s only novel (although she has written a book of short stories on a very different subject) but if she writes another in the ‘eco-gothic’ genre, I would probably be interested in reading it.