Onyx reviews: The Secret of
Lost Things by Sheridan Hay
Rosemary Savage was born on Anzac Day, a holiday commemorating the
first day of Australia and New Zealand's involvement in World War I. Her name
comes from the sprigs Australians pin to their breasts in honor of those lost
to war, analogous to the poppy used in other countries. Thus, her name is a
symbol of remembrance (a fact known to Ophelia in MacBeth, readers are
told—Sheridan Hay knows her literature). After her mother
dies on another Anzac Day eighteen years later, Rosemary is sent abroad
to find herself.
There are many lost things in The Secret of Lost Things, most notably
deposited in America with nothing more to her name than one suitcase, a few
hundred dollars and her mother's ashes. She is the product of a sheltered life,
growing up in Tasmania, a place so exotic that an American postal clerk accuses
her of making it up. The Australian island is secluded to begin with, but even
there her world consisted primarily of the apartment above a hat shop her
overprotective mother owned until she died, destitute. Rosemary has never known
her father and has no information to find him.
She is ill prepared for Manhattan. The hotel where she was supposed to stay
is out of business, and the century-old Martha Washington Hotel for Women where
she ends up might as well be. Lillian, the woman who runs the hotel for her
brother, wears earplugs and stares at the television all day long. The mother of
one of Argentina's disappeared, she clings to hope that some day her lost son's fate
will be revealed.
Two possessions give Rosemary comfort and strength: the box that contains her
mother's ashes and a gift from her guardian—a book, though she
refuses to open the package to find out which one, holding it aside to raise her
spirits when they are at their lowest.
Rosemary lands a position at the Arcade, a maze of a bookstore that bears a
striking resemblance to The Strand, where author Hay once worked. She
essentially demands the job, and one of the book's biggest mysteries is why the
miserly owner, Mr. Pike, hires her. Pike rules the Arcade like a tyrant from a
central dais, where he sets prices for rare and used books according to rules
only he understands. Perhaps he needs a fresh face and new blood to revitalize
the musty old place, with its stacks of paperbacks (the "poor relatives of
hardcovers") and rows of
carefully arranged books (poetry books "only by poet. Don't give a damn
about editors and translators"). Much of its stock is out of print. It is a
place of last resort for acquisitive people seeking valuable volumes—lost
Each section of the store is a fiefdom. Rosemary considers herself the only
non-eccentric person in the place. The second in command is an albino
transparently named Geist—German for "ghost." A lecherous Irish
immigrant named Jack delights in showing Rosemary pictures of naked pictures in
art books. Operating the cash register is a man living out his requisite year as
a woman prior to a sex change operation. There's a gnome in the basement and a
father figure officiating over the rare books collection in the attic.
Non-fiction expert Oscar's
familiarity with the material used to restore books reminds Rosemary of her
She starts out as a floater, working wherever she is needed and learning to negotiate the miles of shelves to locate whatever their clients
desire. She also grows familiar with her peculiar coworkers,
and they introduce her to authors she hasn't yet experienced. Primary among
these is Herman Melville, whose works form a running thread throughout the book.
It is no coincidence that one of her mentors is an albino, though it turns
out that he is the obsessed one rather than the target of obsession. When one of
her coworkers gives Rosemary a copy of Moby-Dick,
she starts reading the chapter about albinos before going back to the beginning.
The bookstore is one of the most colorful characters in the novel.
"Itself a city. Itself an island." A Dickensian
place where books can disappear if not shelved correctly and where the popular
game of "Who Knows?" challenges employees to locate books, sometimes
based on the title or author, but often only on a vague impression of what the
book looked like.
Geist's eyesight is failing due to his genetic defect, so
he gets Rosemary to read a letter to him. Rosemary is beholden to
Geist because he loaned her money to move into a (marginally) better apartment.
From the anonymous letter she learns that someone is willing to sell the
holographic manuscript of a lost Melville novel. In theory, this letter should
have been routed to Mr. Mitchell in the rare books room, but Geist has appropriated this letter for his own purposes. In doing so, he is
defying the signs posted throughout the Arcade that proclaim GEORGE PIKE WILL
NOT TOLERATE THE THEFT OF MONEY OR BOOKS! (Pike, however, is not above taking in
review copies of books and reselling them, knowing full well he is depriving the
authors of legitimate sales.)
The subplot concerning the Melville manuscript, another lost object, starts
up late in the novel. Rosemary, who has fallen in love with Oscar for no obvious
reason other than that he seems unattainable, confides in him about the letter,
becoming something of a double agent.
She spends a disastrous evening with him in the research library identifying the
book in question as The Isle of the Cross, a documented book (destroyed in a
warehouse fire after it was rejected for publication) that Melville first wanted
his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne to write. Hay uses (real) impassioned letters from Melville to
Hawthorne that mirror Rosemary's own rampant emotions to flesh out the intrigue,
but the manuscript is more of a McGuffin than an important element of the story.
The Secret of Lost Things is told from
the perspective of an older, wiser woman, which allows the author to examine what has happened through a more mature perspective.
It is a coming-of-age story with aspirations to
thrillerdom, but its success depends on reader sympathy toward Rosemary's
evolution—the way she naively and optimistically blunders through situations
that far outpace her life's experience. Even when she is given sage advice about
Oscar, her immature emotions cause her to cast caution to the wind. Her sexual
awakening comes in a repugnant scene where she doesn't seem to appreciate the
gravity of the crime that has been committed against her.
In the final analysis, she stops being lost, no longer a floater but someone
who seizes control of her life. It's an engaging morality play that tries a
little too hard, leaving it somewhat thin and transparent, but a decent first
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