Perdita, the eponymous name of a nebulous character in Hilary Scharper’s first novel, Perdita (January 2015), is a minor character in William Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale and supposedly a figure in Greek Mythology who carries biophilia, the fourth thread of love, between the gods and (wo)mankind. Scharper indistinctly draws upon these legends, depicting Perdita as the link between 134-year-old Marged Brice, the main character of this intriguingly mystifying literary debut, and her beloved trees. Marged’s story is told through her journals as read by Professor Garth Hellyer from the Longevity Project seeking the oldest person in the world. Is Marged the one?
Set in the years 1878 to 2012 on the Canadian Bruce Peninsula where the author once served with her husband as a lighthouse keeper before becoming an associate professor of cultural anthropology and an author, Perdita explores the obscure realms of communication between men and women, parent and child, and (wo)man and nature. Marged, partially through Perdita, understands the language of trees, wind, and the waters of the great Georgian Bay that her family’s lighthouse on Cape Prius protects. She seeks solace and answers from them as she grows to maturity – and beyond – finding their meanings hidden in the forces of nature as well as in the paintings of George Stewart, a family friend. Her experiences are meticulously written in the journals she shares with Hellyer, whose own life the author attempts to parallel with Marged’s.
This novel is not what I expected and while a great read, it leans slightly to the left of being bizarre. Perdita teeters on the border of the supernatural, not quite crossing it, bewildering the reader into ferreting out the true physical and spiritual nature of little, but mighty Perdita. Who is she really? Is it true, as the Greeks once believed, that the gods do send messengers among us? Perdita is also not quite a romance, skirting the true elements of historical romance with Marged’s dalliances and forays into Hellyer’s relationship with Clare, a former sweetheart. Hellyer, has his own past torments to deal with as he attempts to prove (or disprove) Marged’s claim of impossible longevity. In her complex and often top-heavy story Scharper does not relate why Marged lives to be so old, mildly hinting that it is Perdita’s doing; but the retelling of her legends is muddled in Marged’s journals and final letter. The rambling dénouement, an explanatory attempt to tie up loose ends, is more confusing than clarifying; the Epilogue, an unnecessary forced conceit whose theme(s) could have been more interestingly woven into the plot line.
However, Scharper’s style of writing is fascinating. Able to spin a spiritualistic story, she has an uncanny ability to switch from different first-person voices without skipping a heartbeat. This is, all in all, a good, solid novel, even if it is on the uncanny, cutting, eerie edge of literary mystique.
Reviewed by June J. McInerney
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