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Angela Meyer, A superior spectre (#BookReview)

February 7, 2019

Angela Meyer, A superior spectreA superior spectre may be Angela Meyer’s first novel, but her already significant writing credentials, including being the author of the short/flash style fiction collection Captives (my review), and the editor of the anthology The great unknown (my review), ensure this is a confident debut. And it needed to be, because Meyer took big risks in this book – structurally, genre-wise, and with her characters.

Let’s start, however, with the title. It hints at genre, doesn’t it? And yes, this book does owe much to genre, but more to genre-bending than to simple genre. It has two storylines – which is part of the risky structure – one set in mid 19th-century Scotland, drawing on historical fiction, and the other also set in Scotland, but in 2024, making it more speculative fiction. There is also a touch of the Gothic here, with visitations, hidden rooms and madhouses, with dark thoughts and hints of perversion. But, the novel is more complex, more sophisticated than that suggested by this idea of two interwoven storylines from the past and the future. The two epigraphs that introduce the novel clue us into this complexity. The first epigraph is from Emily Dickinson and suggests that the “superior spectre” is not “external”, or “material”, but something “interior”, or “more near”, while the second, from Kafka, hints at the dark side of love and human nature.

These ideas are explored through the two main characters: Leonora, a young farm girl from the Scottish Highlands, and Jeff, a dying man who has “escaped” Australia (something that is difficult to do in his chip-controlled futuristic world) to die alone in Scotland. Leonora is poor, but well-read and resourceful; she’s a hard-worker and loves her father; she’s sensual, sexual, but not afraid to express it; and she has a mind of her own, but is independent rather than wilful. She is, in other words, easy to like and wish well for. Jeff, on the other hand, is more ambiguous, and thus a challenge for us readers. Not only does he admit to some questionable sexual proclivities, but his behaviour in Scotland, particularly towards Leonora, becomes increasingly selfish. He knows it, but in the end puts his needs and desires ahead of hers. How, though, given their different eras?

Well, let’s now turn to the structure. Meyer sets us up at the beginning with a comfortable, predictable structure in which third-person Leonora’s story alternates with first-person Jeff’s. There’s nothing particularly remarkable in this, but it doesn’t last. In Part 2 (of this four-part novel), Leonora’s story also becomes first-person. It happens because, as the back cover blurb has told us, Jeff is using some experimental technology (a “tab”) that enables him to inhabit Leonora’s mind, and at the end of Part 1 he decides to change how he brings her to us. His aim, he says, is to enable us to “partly inhabit her as well” though in so doing, he warns us, our thoughts too, like Leonora’s, may be “infected” by him. I like books in which the structure itself underpins the meaning of the work. In this case, the structure unsettles us – as in, where are we now, who are we with – and mirrors the discord being experienced by Leonora, who wonders

about how powerful our thoughts can be. We might think we are sick when we truly have no ailment. But if we present the symptoms, and believe them, are we not sick anyway? . . . I wonder if a person could learn to be aware of when the mind is influencing a bodily reaction, and also when an instinct is overruling the mind.

So, in A superior spectre, we have a destabilising structure, a slippery character in Jeff who knows he doesn’t deserve our sympathy but wants to justify himself nonetheless, and a creative intertwining of genres – but to what purpose? There are several, I think, some personal, some sociopolitical. The latter is obvious. For Leonora there are the gender expectations which limit what a young girl of her class and background can do: she cannot study at university as some young women she meets are doing; she cannot marry the Laird for whom she falls; and she cannot protect herself from being deemed mad when she admits to strange visions of flying machines and horseless carriages. For Jeff, whether we like him or not, there is the lack of personal freedom that comes with living in a so-called technologically-advanced (dystopian) society. It’s not completely coincidental that Meyer wrote her final draft of this book on Jura, where George Orwell finished 1984.

But, it’s the personal – particularly the grappling with one’s inner demons or “spectres” – that gives the book its greatest power. Jeff’s selfishness, his poor self-control and yet desire to explain himself to us, recall characters like Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert. It’s hard to completely hate a character who is so open about his self-disgust even while he does nothing about it, and who engenders at least some sympathy from his Scottish landlady. She doesn’t approve, but she doesn’t reject either. In the end, Jeff is more pathetic than hateful, partly because his “spectres” are plain to see.

Leonora’s “spectres” come from her challenge in matching her sensual nature with the life she finds herself in, from her desire to find that freedom espoused by John Stuart Mill:

It is difficult for me to read about freedom and tyranny without relating these words to my own situation. Mill’s number one basic liberty is a freedom of thought and emotion. The individual being sovereign over his own body and mind. But what if your thoughts are being suppressed not just from the outside, but from some inner tyrant also?

She knows her aunt wants the best for her, a “good” marriage, but fears this would mean

suppressing the thoughts and emotions I have? It is the opposite of liberty; it is to put myself potentially in the hands of another tyrant. I feel I am pressing at walls all around.

Jeff’s “infection” of her (his tyranny), then, can have multiple readings: not only is it a manifestation of his selfish disregard of others, but it represents her own inner spectres, and symbolises the male control she rejects.

A suitable spectre is not an easy book to pin down, but this just makes it more enjoyable. And if that’s not a good enough reason for you, how about that it offers an intelligent interrogation of past and future, of inner conflicts and outer challenges, through two vividly drawn, not-easy-to-forget characters?

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also liked this book.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeAngela Meyer
A superior spectre
Edgecliff: Ventura Press, 2018
ISBN: 9781925183917

(Review copy courtesy Ventura Press)

27 Comments leave one →
  1. February 7, 2019 03:35

    This sounds fascinating.

    • February 7, 2019 08:55

      It Jeanne, one of those books that keeps you thinking as you read – you can’t just whip through it mindlessly!

  2. February 7, 2019 04:29

    Super commentary.

    I often like genre writing but I like it more when books transcend catagories. This sounds both creative and fascinating. Jeff sounds like an all too realistic character. Sometimes such people do have some human characteristics.

    • February 7, 2019 08:55

      Yes, me too Brian … makes the reading more challenging and therefore more interesting (for me, and clearly you.)

  3. February 7, 2019 09:04

    Thanks for the mention:)
    IT’s just occurred to me… this one might be eligible for the Stella?

  4. February 7, 2019 17:38

    I enjoyed A Superior Spectre, too, Sue. I particularly liked how the two threads of story came together in an understated way at the end. A very assured debut novel.

  5. February 7, 2019 20:30

    Nice one

  6. February 7, 2019 22:25

    I really enjoyed this novel. Different, but excellent! I’ll put my review link here but feel free to remove if you wish! I never know whether to do this or not!

    • February 7, 2019 23:35

      Glad you liked it too Theresa. That’s ok to put your link here. I tend not to go looking for multiple blog reviews because I just don’t have the time to do it.

      I did though look a bit further tonight for possible suspects for all my missing Stella long list reviews, but I just chose one blog review for each book, which meant you got chosen for Bluebottle!!

    • February 8, 2019 11:10

      Theresa – I don’t think you’ve added this review to the AWW Challenge site? Hard to remember always I know!

      • February 8, 2019 13:15

        I’ll go and check but I should have. I usually add the link on the morning the post goes live to ensure I never forget.

        • February 8, 2019 13:31

          Yes me too, but it can be tricky when you schedule posts to remember to come back and do it.

      • February 8, 2019 13:18

        How strange! I did miss this one. Adding now!

        • February 8, 2019 13:30

          Great. I was just adding mine and I always check that it’s worked, and saw yours wasn’ there when I obviously knew you’d done one! I don’t go around obsessively checking every AWW participants’ reviews!!!

        • February 8, 2019 14:18

          I never check after but maybe I should! As a matter of habit I visit my latest post each morning to do the social media, Goodreads, and AWW if applicable. Maybe I did it and it just didn’t go through…

        • February 8, 2019 14:50

          You’re good! I do the GoodReads in fits and starts but almost never do extra social media besides the automatic one from WordPress. I should but….

        • February 8, 2019 15:11

          It’s my 20 minute routine each morning over breakfast. I’ve got it honed now!

        • February 8, 2019 15:20

          Sounds like a good routine….I check instagram and blog comments then on my iPad. Usually by the time I’ve done that it’s my yoga time. My blog posting is probably more erratic than yours… And I prefer to do Good Reads and AWW etc on my laptop not my iPad.

        • February 8, 2019 18:42

          It’s the best time for me, before anyone else has woken and started to ask me where things are and can they have this in their lunchbox and are they able to go to whoever’s house after school!

        • February 8, 2019 19:55

          I remember those days… Because I’m a morning person too… But it was before social media for me! My last child finished school in 2005. We were well into the internet but social media was only just starting.

  7. Meg permalink
    February 22, 2019 07:54

    Hi Sue, a great review. I just finished reading A Superior Spectre. Different, and Leonora will stay with me. I don’t think many of my friends would read it. Though on my suggestion, one of the librarian’s at my library is going to read it.

    • February 22, 2019 08:32

      Thanks Meg… I’m glad you liked it. That’s an interesting comment about your friends. I hadn’t thought about that but I think it probably isn’t one all one would read either.

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