Nominally, Perdita, a new novel from Hilary Scharper, is a mystery featuring a woman who claims to be 134 years old that is solved by an historian named Garth Hellyer. Director of the Longevity Project, Garth collects oral histories of Canada’s oldest living people. A friend of Garth’s introduces him to a very old and rather bewitching woman claiming to be Marged Brice, who, records indicate, was the daughter of a lighthouse keeper at Cape Prius on the Bruce Peninsula in the 1890’s. After a brief and not altogether convincing first interview with Marged, Garth agrees to evaluate the authenticity of the turn-of-the-century diaries Marged says are hers.
Perdita’s first chapter hints at the novel’s biggest weakness: a penchant for the supernatural that doesn’t quite reach. In the mega-selling Twilight series, vampires are marked by their sparkly skin; Marged also has a disturbing but enchanting physical characteristic – flashing blue eyes she must cover with a scarf. Marged shows her flashing blue eyes to Garth as proof that she is a special case, and with that Garth agrees to help. This bit of silliness threatens to throw Perdita off track almost immediately.
The ghostly elements of this story are mere window-dressing for an otherwise finely wrought historical novel. Scharper’s prose in Marged’s voice is just as measured, just as alluringly old-fashioned, as many a Pulitzer or Orange Prize winner before her. If only Scharper had not succumbed to the allure of the paranormal romance, and let Perdita become the altogether heart-capturing novel that takes over once Garth starts to read through Marged’s stunningly beautiful diaries. The sweeping and satisfying descriptions of Lake Huron and its fickle waters, sometimes soothingly calm, sometimes devastatingly stormy, are perfectly entrancing in and of themselves.
Opening with the summer season of 1897, Marged’s diaries divulge her complicated feelings toward the fancy visitors her family tends to on the Cape every summer: rich Toronto families who don’t necessarily respect the great power of the lake and the rocky waters that surround their idyllic holiday haven. In particular, the Stewart family is close to Marged’s heart: she is a tutor for the younger son, Allan, and is a great admirer of the older son, George, a painter on the brink of an extraordinary international career. A winning but lonely ornithologist called Dr. McTavish, a friend of the Stewarts’, invites Marged and her ailing mother to spend the next winter in the city at his stately home on Spadina Avenue. There a fascinating romantic puzzle emerges between Marged, George whom she’s always loved, and a young, passionate Toronto doctor named Andrew Reid.
In Marged’s diaries, Scharper accomplishes first-rate historical fiction – these sections read with effortless grace and great humanity, with Marged discovering the pleasures of city life while also aching for her wild life on the bay. Marged offers small treats of historical revelation, smoothly gliding through the issues of the day in such a way that the 1890s feel visceral and exciting, an era only beginning to imagine the scope of what would soon be possible – in art, in medicine, and for women.
Like the Brontës and many fine writers before her, Scharper is also captivated with the morbid Spiritualism of the Victorian age (there is even a scene with a gypsy psychic, which greatly recalls an iconic plot turn in Jane Eyre). Young Marged’s dreamlike forays into the spirit world are believable, charming and genuinely hypnotic to read, mainly because they fit into our understanding of the era.
Clunkier are the contemporary sections narrated by Garth, especially those when Marged tries to explain the supernatural reasoning for her still being alive. Clunkier still is the dialogue – and awkward romance – between Garth and his childhood friend, a British Museum curator named Clare. Clare conveniently appears to help Garth make sense of the literary allusions to “Perdita” (“the lost one,” in Latin) that keep coming up in the diaries and in Garth’s subsequent conversations with the woman who claims to be 134-year-old Marged: Perdita was the name of the Shakespearean heroine in A Winter’s Tale, and, according to classical experts in Scharper’s novel, Perdita was also the daughter of Hephaestus and Pandora in Greek mythology.
The only reference to Perdita that actually matters to the reader is that “Perdita” is what Marged names the force that is keeping her alive. It’s possible that Scharper threw in these literary allusions as red herrings (so that the reader might assume that the novel’s eventual reveal won’t be otherworldly, but rather poetic), but either way all this talk of the Perditas of history serve no real purpose, and just weigh the novel down with more learned posturing.
Garth and Clare’s task is to figure out what Marged means by Perdita, and in doing so determine whether or not she really is the oldest living person. The reader’s task is to keep up with Perdita’s onslaught of academic references and silly visions, and find their way back to the perfectly lovely story that manages to weed its way in around them. There is a thin subplot that weaves Garth and Clare together, and Garth also manages to bring his alcoholic mother, his distant but brilliant father and some other unnecessary back story into the prolonged conclusion of Perdita. Brush past all of that to get back to Marged’s bright and sensitive musings on love, nature and her small piece of history at the turn of the twentieth century. Her prose will haunt you much more than the flashing eyes of an unnaturally old woman.
Lucy Silag is the author of the Beautiful Americans novels for young adults.