Review by Mirella Patzer
After a love affair that ends in tragedy, Garth Hellyer throws himself into his work for the Longevity Project, interviewing the oldest living people on the planet. But nothing has prepared him for Marged Brice, who claims to be a stunningly youthful 134. Marged says she wants to die, but can’t, held back by the presence of someone she calls Perdita.
Garth, despite his skepticism, is intrigued by Marged’s story, and agrees to read “her” journals of life in the late 1890s. Soon he’s enthralled by Marged’s story of love, loss, and myth in the tempestuous wilderness of the Bruce Peninsula. He enlists the help of his childhood friend Clare to help him make sense of the mystery.
As Garth and Clare unravel the truth of Marged and Perdita, they discover together just what love can mean when it never dies.
PERDITA by Hilary Scharper is a character-driven novel with an intriguing storyline – the secret history of a woman who claims to be 134 years old. When Garth Hellyer, a writer with a tormented past, seeks to interview Marged Brice for a longevity project he is working on, he is stunned by her claim to such an advanced age. Unable to believe her, even though she produces her birth certificate, Marged provides him with her private diaries. The secrets inside will reveal her truth. It is through her diaries that Garth learns of Perdita.
What I enjoyed most about this novel was its unusual setting. 19th century Tobermory, Ontario is far off the beaten past. Relatively unknown by the world, the location lends the book a strong gothic feel. The story unfolds through Garth’s narrative as well as Marged’s diaries. Powerful stories emerge from each of their stories, linking them together into the future. The characters are richly complex and unpredictable. Themes about aging, wisdom, respect, and an appreciation for nature are prevalent throughout. The story culminates in a stunning ending.
If you are a reader who enjoys deep, thought-provoking novels that dig beneath the surface of everyday life, this novel is sure to please.
Interview with Hilary Scharper:
Welcome to the Historical Novel Review Blog, Hilary. I'm excited about learning more about you and your recent success with Perdita.
1. Can you tell us a little about your novel?
An elderly woman is dropped off by limousine at a remote nursing home in northern Ontario. Marged Brice claims she is 134 and cannot die owing to the presence of someone named “Perdita.” Garth Hellyer, a WWII historian who is battle-scarred from a previous love relationship, is asked to investigate. To help explain the mystery, Marged shares “her” journals with him, dating from the late 1890s. The diaries take Garth to the wilds of Georgian Bay and the world of the Cape Prius lighthouse. In the meantime, Clare—the winsome and still-single sister of Garth’s boyhood best friend—arrives unexpectedly at the cottage next door to help him pursue the mystery of who Marged Brice really is.
2. What inspired you to write a novel about a woman in this period of history?
The world of the lighthouse and lighthouse keepers has often been described as a “man’s world,” but of course many keepers brought their families along to live with them during their eight months of duty. I’ve always been very intrigued by how women fit into this world—not simply as “silent partners” but as vibrant persons who were active in shaping the landscapes in which they found themselves.
I recently wrote about aspects of lighthouse life in The National Post:
3. What hardships did women face in this particular century and what lessons can today's woman learn from it?
From the historical documents I’ve read about 19th century lighthouses on the Great Lakes, isolation and physical hardship—particularly running out of food and surviving some extremely fierce storms—were probably the most severe challenges. Many women also participated in the day-to-day work of the lighthouse, so that in addition to their domestic chores, they would clean and polish the lens, monitor the clockwork, and generally assist in making sure that the light, as well as the foghorn, were functioning properly. Women also frequently assisted in rescue efforts and many risked their lives trying to aid shipwreck survivors. So the accounts of bravery and physical endurance as well as the agility of “lighthouse women” were particularly inspiring to me, but women’s stories remain—for the most part—marginal to the cultural history of light-keeping.
4. What inspired you about your heroine? Why did you choose her?
I’m not sure if I chose Marged Brice or she chose me. (!) I spent much of my childhood wandering along the shores of Georgian Bay during the summer months, and Marged Brice’s deep love of the area is “kindred” to my own. In making Marged 134 years old, I wanted to explore the notion of a lighthouse itself as an entity that uniquely connects the past with the present.
5. Can you tell us briefly about your other novels and any new novels in the works?
My first work of fiction is a collection of short stories titled Dream Dresses. The collection explores how the “fabric” of women's aspirations becomes so entangled with attire that the dress and the dream sometime become one and the same.
My second novel, The Eidos Project, which I’m in the process of refining, involves a young woman who experiences a mental crisis following the sudden death of her famous literary father. There’s a mysterious and unusual linden tree involved, and in this novel I explore an “urban eco-gothic.”
I am also currently working on second and third volumes of a Perdita trilogy, both of which continue with the story of Marge Brice’s life.
Thank you, Hilary for stopping by!
For more information on Perdita visit the Perdita Book Page at Simon and Schuster Canada.
If you happen to live in the Toronto area, you can attend the official Perdita Book Launch.