5 stars A Superior Spectre is the first novel by Australian publisher and author, Angela Meyer. In the Highlands of Scotland in the mid-nineteenth century, young Leonora Duncan is content with her life in her father’s small village, Chapeltown. She loves animals, learning about them from Mr Anderson, while their laird, William Wink is kind, a man disinclined to clear his tenants for more profitable crops. Her only worry is that her loving father does not seem content with this future, deciding to send her to Edinburgh in the hope of attracting a better husband.
Perhaps two hundred years later, Jeff has received an unfavourable diagnosis, one that will mean surgery and drugs. He opts out, planning to suffer his body’s natural deterioration, seeing this as what he deserves. It requires anonymity, so he fakes his ID and takes a cottage on a remote Scottish island.
Aware he will be quite debilitated, he brings an andserv to assist him. He allows himself the distraction of a piece of experimental tech-tainment: a tab that links his mind to someone in the past, in his case, Leonora Duncan. His self-indulgent rejection of the admonition to use it only three times has serious consequences for his host. Even as he becomes aware of this, he does not desist.
This is a novel of historical fiction, of time-travel, of possession, of madness and paranoia. The story is told in a dual narrative: Jeff recounts the events that brought him to the island while his reminiscences offer some explanation of his mental state, his guilt and shame; Leonora’s account gives the reader the unique perspective of sensing another’s presence inside the mind.
Meyer’s tale is original and cleverly constructed, touching on several thought-provoking topics: the sense of entitlement of certain generations; the powerful lure of curiosity; the restrictions placed on women in the nineteenth century; the treatment of mental illness. Meyer easily evokes her setting with her descriptive prose, and her characters are so well drawn that the reader is bound to feel anxiety about Leonora’s fate and repulsion at Jeff’s behaviour, as intended. This is an outstanding debut novel and it will be interesting to see what Meyer does next.