Haunted Eliot Saxby is employed by men with more means than sense to search for traces of the recently-extinct Great Auk. He is not the only unusual passenger aboard the Amethyst. Edward Bletchley, bright and brittle, has brought his engraved guns and his mysterious cousin Clara. Will these troubled southern souls find any peace in the blood-soaked travels of an Arctic trader?
I picked this up expecting a little mystery, some adventure in the icy north, and a bit of natural history. While these things all feature, brace yourself for something rather different. The Collector of Lost Things begins with the mood of a Gothic novel – interweaving the question of Clara’s identity and the truth of Eliot’s past, using foreshadowing and regret to make it clear from the start things are not what they seem – but it develops into a brutal depiction of the economic realities of a lost way of life and a discussion of economics vs environmental obligations.
Those who have no stomach for repeated scenes of animal slaughter would do well to steer clear; while Eliot disapproves, he bears witness to the crew making a living by killing for profit. Birds, seals, walruses and whales are a source of income rather than of wonder; the narrative exposing the blood and cruelty that is ignored by those enjoying the trappings of a ‘civilised’/’modern’ lifestyle (here a Victorian one; but Eliot’s reflections remain relevant).
Man’s most obvious mark on the world is of his violence
While I’m sympathetic to Eliot’s arguments (and share his distaste for manipulative bully Captain Sykes), I probably wouldn’t have picked this book up if I’d known more about it. I was intrigued by Clara and beguiled by the hopeless romanticism of Eliot’s quest for eggshells (and even sympathetic to his situation, knowing he was seeking them for men who wouldn’t value them, and his plan to wring intellectual capital from studying them before he handed them over).
But this is a narrative peopled by monsters and bogeymen. Captain Sykes is casually cruel; creepy first officer Quinlan French is peculiarly antagonistic; fellow passenger Edward Bletchley is all privilege and pretense – given to absurd statements (his guns will be very good – he has had them engraved, you know) that reflect little knowledge of the world, just an assumption that it will bend to his will .
Consequently, I found the book quite oppressive as these grim, unpleasant men vie for dominance. I struggled to believe there could be a happy ending as both Eliot’s and Bletchley’s mental health unravelled, and the apparently-fragile Clara emerged as the strongest character of the three (however, it goes without saying that on a Victorian ship you should expect sexism in boatloads).
I also found Eliot’s obsession with Clara symptomatic rather than laudable (is she really the woman he loved and lost?), and I found it easier to believe French would be attracted to Eliot than that Clara would (…and I might have liked the book a little better if the love triangle had followed those less conventional lines).
In the end, this is a book about a man’s journey into his past to confront his demons and attempt to redeem himself. There’s no real surprises here for the reader – it is the journey we’re meant to find interesting, not his eventual arrival at the obvious destination. This is where it fails for me: I took no pleasure in the journey beyond the excellent quality of the prose, so I needed something more to warm myself with. I could appreciate the book, but I didn’t enjoy it.