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Trees hide forest in gothic tale

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THIS debut gothic novel set in Ontario's remote Bruce Peninsula on Georgian Bay demonstrates an enormous love of the natural environment. Unfortunately, it's often hard to see the forest for the trees.

In 2009 Hilary Scharper, an anthropology professor at the University of Toronto, released her debut short-story collection, Dream Dresses. The stories explored the outward appearance as well as the inner life of girls and women. Perdita is her first novel.

The story opens as Garth Hellyer, a historian and researcher for a longevity project, comes across a woman, Marged Brice, who claims to be 134 years old.

Though obviously skeptical, Garth is asked by the director of the nursing home where Marged resides to try to verify the information as part of his research on the elderly.

Marged also pleads with him to read her diaries so that he will believe who she says she is. She also tells Garth that a mysterious figure she calls Perdita will not let her die and seeks his help.

Most of the story takes place in the past and is told in the first person through Marged's diaries written in 1897 when she would have been about 19.

The remainder of the story, narrated by Garth, is set in the present and focuses on his relationship with his childhood friend Clare.

The tale alternates between the past and Marged's growing romantic involvement with two men and the present where Garth enlists Clare's help in trying to solve the puzzle of Marged's true identity. They also attempt to unravel the mystery of Perdita.

The Bruce Peninsula is the setting for both time frames. Garth and Clare live in cottages along the coast where Marged once lived many years earlier.

Scharper infuses Perdita with a gothic and romantic flavour that calls to mind Daphne Du Maurier's classic 1938 novel Rebecca. But she also throws into the mix mystery, lessons in Greek mythology, the supernatural, a strong emphasis on the natural environment and history.

This makes for a rich and complex story -- but it is also overwhelming. There are so many facets and layers and threads to the story that it seems cluttered, often distracting and not nearly as suspenseful as it could be.

Because Marged's diaries are supposed to have been written in the late 1800s, the prose here comes across as quaint, overly formal and constrained. This slows the story down considerably.

Even the conversations between Garth and Clare seem overly formal and their characters are not as well developed as Marged's.

It's also hard to become concerned about what the future holds for Marged until close to the end. And so it is perplexing that, as the story closes, the we are left with mostly loose threads and unresolved issues. It almost seems as though a sequel might be in the works.

Cheryl Girard is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 20, 2013 J8

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