Thursday, July 4, 2013

just finished: Perdita by Hilary Scharper

It's the summer, which is another name in my world for Reading Season. This week I gobbled down Hilary Scharper's new novel, Perdita, which was an utter delight.

Perdita is really a tale-within-a-tale: in the frame narrative, Garth Hellyer, a historian and professor, meets a new resident at a care home near his summer cottage as part of his work on a project seeking out the world's oldest people. Marged Brice claims, first of all, to be 134 years old; she also claims to have a secret, to be kept alive by a force--or being--she calls Perdita. Garth's task is to unravel the mystery of Marged's claims, a project he undertakes in large part by reading the diaries she presses on him, written in 1897-98.

The bulk of the story unfolds in those diaries and several letters, which give us the first-person account of a 19-year-old Marged (the same Marged?) living on Lake Huron's Bruce Peninsula at the end of the nineteenth century. Marged's tale unfolds as a love triangle, tracing the tension her longtime affection for George Stewart, a passionate painter, and her growing attraction to Dr. Andrew Reid, the physician helping attend to her ill mother.

But Marged's story is much more than a conventional historical romance, for the two men are not her only would-be lovers. Indeed, the young woman's journaling recounts an even more profound relationship with her surroundings--a dynamic, at points tempestuous, but always deeply committed love between this protagonist and the trees (whose opinions she trusts), the water (with whom she must negotiate), and the wind (with whom she even argues). This is not domesticated nature, prettified, but Sublime Nature, both beautiful and terrifying, gift-giving and Other.

For these reasons, Scharper's own label "eco-gothic" seems absolutely apt. Perdita manifest the key traits of the gothic genre: romance, mystery, danger, the supernatural, storms, emotional extremes. But the setting is not simply a backdrop that heightens the human happenings; the ecosystem is a character of its own. Perdita, it becomes increasingly clear, is a personification of this abiding and difficult love that not only joins humans to one another but also to the powerful and wonderful land and sea, the winds and waves, the shafts of light and seedlings.

Marged's diaries are lyrically written, and the book itself is a study in erudition: refusing a division between nature and culture, it draws on the riches of both careful observation in orinthology and non-mimetic painting, both the technical expertise of lighthouse-keepers and the explanatory universes of Greek mythology, both what can be seen and mysteries beyond the rational world. I read one rather harsh review that misses this point altogether, asserting that the novel would be stronger without "learned posturing" and "silly visions." But the reviewer's ideal historical romance utterly lacks Perdita's strengths: its provocative sense of the enchantment of the world, the throbbing connectedness of life and matter, of various lives over time, and stories, and artifacts of human making, and the world beyond human making. The central question is not, "Whom will she choose?" but "Who is Perdita?"

The frame narrative, in which Garth seeks to piece together Marged's mystery with the help of his childhood friend Clare, is at points a jarring contrast to Marged's poetic prose. At points, in fact, it reads rather more like a Dan Brown novel, dialogue-heavy and dually motivated by both mystery and romantic interest. This may be the novel's primary weakness--Garth and Clare are nowhere near as complexly drawn as the characters in Marged's diaries, and the stakes of their relationship and happiness are nowhere near as compelling. But the novel's end, especially, bears slow reading and contemplation--the links and echoes between Marged's life and Garth's are far from accidental. Indeed, Garth's jarringly unenchanted world, compared to Marged's rich sense of her place on the Bruce Peninsula, may be calculated to remind us of our own--and to awaken us, with Garth, to how much we have to learn about the various forms of love.

Perdita is an eminently readable novel, compelling in part because it is structured by an unfolding investigation and in part because its sections of Marged's writing are so beautifully composed. I recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone interested in a summer read, but also more specifically to those interested in thinking through what it might look like to translate eco-activism into imaginative literature.

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