A Superior Spectre…
About the Book:
Jeff is dying. Haunted by memories and grappling with the shame of his desires, he runs away to remote Scotland with a piece of experimental tech that allows him to enter the mind of someone in the past. Instructed to only use it three times, Jeff – self-indulgent, isolated and deteriorating – ignores this advice.
In the late 1860s, Leonora lives a contented life in the Scottish Highlands, surrounded by nature, her hands and mind kept busy. Contemplating her future and the social conventions that bind her, a secret romantic friendship with the local laird is interrupted when her father sends her to stay with her aunt in Edinburgh – an intimidating, sooty city; the place where her mother perished.
But Leonora’s ability to embrace her new life is shadowed by a dark presence that begins to lurk behind her eyes, and strange visions that bear no resemblance to anything she has ever seen or known…
A Superior Spectre is a highly accomplished debut novel about our capacity for curiosity, and our dangerous entitlement to it, and reminds us the scariest ghosts aren’t those that go bump in the night, but those that are born and create a place for themselves in the human soul.
“The historical richness of Outlander meets the dystopian feminism of Margaret Atwood in this highly accomplished book from the most exciting debut novelist of 2018 – Angela Meyer.”
The first thing I want to say about A Superior Spectre is this: do not go into this novel thinking it is anything at all like Outlander. It’s not. It’s a curious blend of science fiction and historical fiction, the resulting story presenting as a cautionary tale with gothic leanings about the perils of greed and power alongside the misuse of science. It’s startlingly clever yet intensely discomforting and it should possibly come with a content warning as it has the potential to upset some readers.
Jeff is the most vile creature I have ever come across in a novel. His self flagellation did nothing to balance out the perversion of his desires, it just made him even more contemptible. He is given a device which enables him to indulge in a digitised neural experience (DNE), a futuristic invention akin to time travel for your mind. Yet, because he is dying, he doesn’t follow the instructions and overuses it to the point where he has invaded the mind of a young Scottish woman living in the late 1860s, whose connection to him slowly sends her mad. Jeff’s entire life has been about him, every step of the way, so it stands to reason that he will die that way: self absorbed and self indulgent. He disgusted me and once his ‘desires’ became apparent, I will admit to distancing myself from his sections. And yet, Jeff’s sections were quite an accomplishment for the author. When you have a character who is so repulsive, reader instinct is to turn away. I felt like Jeff was trying to make us feel for him, while at the same time, the author was giving us every reason not to. It was an interesting dynamic.
With Leonora, I was fully invested in her journey. These historical sections were so steeped in atmosphere and authenticity. There was a gothic element to the setting and the sense of Victorian restraint was ever present. To me, there was a Dracula kind of feel to this part of the story, with Leonora’s mind being inexplicably invaded while her body became infused with sensation and desire. I liked this blend of the gothic historical with science fiction. It was so unique and provided a solid canvas for the author to explore many themes, most notably, the abuse of power within the context of male privilege and the idea that female promiscuity is linked with mental instability.
“We cannot do this, or it will create some external evidence of my madness. A woman who has burst from her corset, from the cage of her bones. That’s what it feels like, like I am uncontained and spreading out.”
Leonora was oppressed, in so many ways, and Jeff seemed to take it upon himself to ‘enrich’ her by infusing her with his own memories and desires. Yet he oppressed her further and it was incredibly sad to see her unravelling under his influence. And infuriating as well. I was so angry at him, wishing he would just get on with the business of dying and leave her in peace, which was what he was wishing as well! I was also angry at the other men in Leonora’s life. Her father, who simply wanted to get rid of her so he could have a new life with his new wife; Oskar, who wanted to indulge in her sexuality yet despised her for it; William, who betrayed her confidence in him. Leonora suffered in the way so many women have throughout the ages: she was not permitted to live freely, to simply be herself.
“I want to live in the Highlands – to have physical duties but to be free in my thoughts, to use my hands while my mind has time to draw connections between ideas.”
I very much liked the ending of this novel. It rounded things out for all of the characters and provided closure for the reader. I don’t mind an open ended finish but I was pleased the author avoided that in this case. A Superior Spectre is a clever piece of literary fiction. I feel there will be resistance to and adulation heaped upon this novel in equal spades. It will depend on how you approach it, but an open mind will lead to a greater appreciation.
About the Author:
Angela Meyer’s writing has been widely published, including in Best Australian Stories, Island, The Big Issue, The Australian, The Lifted Brow and Killings. She has previously published a book of flash fiction, Captives (Inkerman & Blunt). By day she works as a commissioning editor for Echo, an imprint of Bonnier Publishing Australia. She lives in Melbourne. literaryminded.com.au @literaryminded
A Superior Spectre
Published by Ventura Press
Released on 1st August 2018
Available in Paperback and eBook
Available through Simon & Schuster Australia