Friday, November 18, 2016

Canada: The Gallery of Lost Species, by Nina Berkhout

I'm a bit of a sucker for quirky plots and interesting titles. So when I found this on the library shelves, and saw that it was written by a Canadian author, I decided to make it my Canada pick. (I find that my knowledge of Canadian writers is suprisingly limited, apart from Margaret Atwood, and I had already read a number of her books so wanted something new).

The title is rather reminiscent of Alice Hoffman's "The Museum of Extraordinary Things", which I had enjoyed very much. However it turns out to be very different, and much less strange. The first sentence is "When I was thirteen, I saw a unicorn". We quickly learn, however, that the unicorn is a goat. Edith, the narrator, is the younger daughter of Henry,an artist and Constance, a would be model, originally from France. Her older sister Vivienne is pushed by her mother into becoming a child beauty pageant star. Vivienne has inherited her father's artistic talent but rebels against her mother and sinks into alcoholism. Edith, feeling herself to lack talent, and nurturing a doomed passion for Liam, who yearns for Vivenne, studies museum conservation and obtains a job in the National Gallery of Canada. There she meets Theo, an elderly crypto zoologist, who studies mythical creatures. He is searching for a bird seen in Gauguin's paintings. (What happens if you find it, Edith asks his young colleague Jonathon. - Then it becomes a conservation problem no one wants to deal with).

I began to feel that this was not my sort of book at all - too much contemporary life, too much alcohol, drugs and general grittiness - but when I let go the expectations the title raised in me, I found it absorbing. It could have been sad and depressing. Instead, the ending, while not exactly uplifting, seemed to offer a resolution of sorts, and at least a measure of peace.

Nina Berkhout is a poet and this is her first novel, but the poetic sensibility shows through.

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