A Superior Spectre
Angela Meyer’s first novel, A Superior Spectre, is a superior ghost story. It is a tale of two protagonists, a 19th-century Scottish woman and a 21st-century Australian man, who come to haunt each other, thanks to a pseudo-pharmaceutical that transports the contemporary narrator through time and space into the woman’s consciousness.
The Scottish woman, Leonora Duncan, is a Highlander who has grown up on the land and is interested in the natural sciences, but who is disempowered by her gender and class from pursuing study or a relevant occupation. She is also disenfranchised from her own body by patriarchal ideologies. Her loneliness, powerlessness and frustration are profound.
The Australian man, Jeff, by contrast, lives in a future dystopia of ID chips and surveillance, but he is privileged enough to be able to escape into an experience of virtual voyeurism, which gives him access to Leonora’s body and mind. He thrills at experiencing menstruation, a woman’s orgasm (when Leonora masturbates) and the loss of her virginity. He even moves to Scotland himself, accompanied by his android servant, isolating himself from the need for real and responsible interactions with others. He becomes obsessed with escaping into her life.
However, his invasions of Leonora’s consciousness have detrimental effects on her life. She begins to have confusing visions of the modern world, Jeff’s abandoned ex-wife and his barely repressed desires for young men.
If this ghost story is elevated, it is in part because of its superior intelligence. There is the careful beauty of the prose, which neither fetishises nor baulks at bold and complex subjects, including loneliness and sexuality. Leonora’s orgasm, for instance, is “an action unspoken that made sense in the way of sun whiting your eyelids in summer ... and when she came to that rush, where she could feel her own inner workings – the blood and breath within her – it was light she normally saw”. The novel is also cleverly self-aware, likening Jeff’s voyeuristic experience of Leonora’s consciousness to the reader’s, but ultimately encouraging readers to recognise how literary characters have the power to haunt us, too. As Jeff himself reflects, “It’s discomfiting when books do that, though. Sometimes terrifying. And yet afterwards, you cling them to your chest.” This is one of those rare books that penetrates deep into the reader’s most secret self. Read it and hold it close. KN
Ventura Press, 400pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 28, 2018 as "Angela Meyer, A Superior Spectre". Subscribe here.