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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 Rosemary, 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 things.

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 hat-making mother.

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 effort.

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