Wednesday, 23 April 2014

The Collector of Lost Things, by Jeremy Page

It is 1850; egg expert and nature fan Mr. Eliot Saxby has been hired by some important acquaintances with more money than sense to journey out on a merchant ship to the Arctic. The vessel and its crew make regular trips to the Arctic Circle to hunt and trade with Esquimaux populations, but the purpose of Mr. Saxby's passage is to collect eggs, evidence and natural artefacts (if possible) from a possibly rare, possibly extinct bird; the Great Auk. Mr Saxby considers himself the lone voice of morality and reason on the boat, populated with mercenary men driven by profit only and with little regard for animal welfare or ecology. The journey soon becomes a horrific slaughter fest, as the crew begin their harvest, violently slaughtering seals, walruses, and whales for their valuable parts.

The only other passengers are a mysterious woman named Clara that Eliot finds arrestingly familiar, and her possessive, hunter cousin who wants to bag himself some Arctic game. Cooped up in the ship for weeks with no escape, and with such conflicting interests, it is not long before tensions begin to emerge between Eliot, his fellow passengers and the ship's crew, with potentially deadly consequences.

I bought this book on a whim, drawn to the museumish ephemera cover. The narrative began promisingly enough- being a bit of a twitcher myself, I was immediately interested in the ornithology themes of the book and a bird based Arctic thriller seemed like something not done before. I love Norfolk too, so bonus points for all the marshy broadland descriptions. I was expecting a gothic(ish), atmospheric thriller, kind of like the end of Frankenstein- icy claustrophobia, tension and ravaged consciences. I agree entirely with Eliot's rage at the careless, entitled way that mankind stomps around the Earth, randomly grabbing and what will make them money and smashing what won't- and the story of the Great Auk is a sad and regrettable one that would make brilliant fiction...but this book was a bit of a frosty let down.
I don't mind the violence described as the hunts get underway. Some of the descriptions are very grim and full of gore, but then so is hunting, so par for the course really. The desolate icescapes of the Arctic region were also competently written, though I didn't find them particularly evocative or arresting. It set the scene well enough, but I never felt like the Arctic inspired any sense of awe, which is usually the case with such dramatic landscapes. I kept waiting for the tragedy or for the drama of the ice to unfold, but none came.
I feel this book perhaps focused on the wrong thing. The mysterious identity of Clara, evidently supposed to be so much of a mystery, was easy to guess at and it felt like this was intended to be some shocking reveal or twist, throwing Eliot's entire character into question. The painful flashbacks that he suffers, transporting him back to the stately home in Suffolk get a little dull when the reader has already guessed the connection. I didn't feel like Clara added much to the story at all, she didn't really manage to pull of the mysterious haunted heroine role, and I found myself bored and exasperated by her much of the time. The same can be said for Eliot really. I understand that he was supposed to be a sensitive, tortured soul, crippled by guilt and on a mission to right his wrongs, but he ended up coming across as simpering and dull, a case of mistaken identity eked out into something interesting.
In all, a promising set of ideas in a unique and appealing location, but lacking any really interesting characters and with a tacked on twist that isn't sufficiently twisty, nor particularly shocking. I would have liked Eliot's moral code to have been the thing to have driven him out of his mind and into a more advanced state of psychological decline, rather than an almost familiar girl driving him just mad enough to have strange dreams and get a bit shouty, which is what happens. It has made me want to read Frankenstein again though.

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