The Collector of Lost Things (2013) by Jeremy Page
Review by Helen McIver
My next new British author – I must immediately find his first two books, Salt and Sea Change. Page is also a great photographer and screenwriter. He grew up on the north Norfolk coast where half of his world was the sea. The first book has biographical elements and this book he says he was always interested in the Arctic. The meticulous research creates a wonderfully vivid prose, while his poetic language transports you to the place and time: the desolate, freezing, dangerous beauty of the Victorian Arctic. A young researcher/ naturalist Eliot Saxby joins an 1845 arctic expedition to find the mythical possibly extinct (1844) Great Auk. But he’s on a trading (hunting) ship The Amethyst with a dubious motley crew. It used to be a slave ship, which also provides a sense of foreboding. There are excellent seafaring details and life on board: oil lamps. Sheep’s head clocks, canvas sinks, lime washed shiplapped wood of his tight quarters, mizzensail, masts (14 sails) and salt. You are in the middle of the icy, grey weather, the frigid relentless cold, and the devastating isolation in which you are easily lost. In a sea of madmen, how could it get worse? It does. Don’t read this in winter.
The Collector of Lost Things is a dark gothic tale filled with haunting mystery, obsession and doom. The use of the claustrophobic ship in an isolated harsh environment with an uneven, barbaric crew feels like a descent into madness at times. There is a building tension between the moral sensibilities and commercial motivation, with questionable sanity, violence and cruelty. But here is also the possibility of love, wonder of nature, and hope that creates a thrilling tale.
The Collector is an engaging historical novel which was inspired by true stories by European explorers / traders, who exploited the marine environment. It is a rather brutal telling of profit especially for the last known specimens which were sold to museums and collectors. That this happens to be particularly relevant to our own times with the destruction of the environment, and specifically the Arctic and Antarctic, is depressing. The graphic descriptions of slaughter and animal cruelty was an horrific reality then, worse, it is still happening. The detailed butchery of seals, walrus, seagulls, anything in its wake can make for difficult but still essential reading. This is a complex but ultimately rewarding tale. (Perhaps not a beach read!)
“It felt as though the ship was a tree among a forest of trees, further hidden by a thicket of thorns and climbers, rigging growing over her and the ships moored alongside, purposefully disguised….I couldn’t see the ship and perhaps I never saw it for what it was.”
“These things move towards us from the horizons, whether we set sail for them or not.”
…”I worried that I might not be able to cope with his enthusiasms, in such confined quarters.”
“It was an unknown environment with its own rules.”
“The worlds of ocean and ice were meeting in a frontier of rage, as if the earth had torn in two along this line.”
“We have filled the hull of this ship with dead things. It is the weight of their souls that has caused us all to suffer.”
“Perhaps one day, man will save the Arctic in all it’s multitude of extraordinary life, but perhaps by then man will be too late, as he always seems to be.”