There are a number of things we collect through our lives. Artifacts. Memories. Friends. Thoughts. Ideas. It is what we do with those items as we get older that makes us who we are. And to ponder and reflect on those items we have collected, lost or tossed away can be an interesting thought process for any serious reader of literature to endeavour. And Nina Berkhout has given us something to start our own journeys of personal reflection with her novel The Gallery of Lost Species.
Of the four of us, only Viv didn’t have the compulsion to gather objects around her.
You’d think she’d have copied Constance, cluttering her vanity with makeup and costume jewellery, but outside the pageant world. my sister remained unadorned.
She ignored her shelves of trophies and her reams of rosette ribbons. Her room had minimal furnishings and laced decoration other than the jagged mirrors and a dark mound of clothes at the foot of her bed. She didn’t look into the mirrors and draped her sweatshirts over them when she wasn’t practising at the barre. Regularly I peered beneath the fabrics to examine myself, squeezing at the overhang of fat above my waist and striking poses to appear thinner.
Unlike Viv’s Spartan quarters, my room was jammed with books that Henry told me were important to my future education. I read before school and at night and whenever I could in between. I still didn’t get through all the tomes, and the ones I did finish, I couldn’t make sense of.
Berkhout has divided this book into two sections; the first part where she has her protagonist Edith Walker growing up with her somewhat dysfunctional family and the second part that has her trying to deal with the results of her upbringing as an adult. We see Edith witnessing her overbearing mother drag her sister from beauty competition to competition then Edith must try to deal with her sister’s drug and alcohol abuse later in life. Berkhout has brilliantly documented not only a coming-of-age novel but also shown cause/effect issues which occurs in all people’s complex lives.
I found Viv outside the Laff, talking to a guy in a toque whose jeans were so low-riding I wanted to pull them up for him. I called to her from across the street. She pecked him on the cheek and ran over. She was so thin her purse looked like weighed more than she did.
“Garbage head,” she said breathlessly.
“That guy. He’s a garbage head.”
“You don’t do drugs, then?” I stopped walking and stood in front of her.
“I found a pipe in your room once.”
“That’s a lifetime ago.” She turned to keep walking.
I grabbed her wrist. “Promise?”
“Yes. Let go.” She wrenched her arm away. pulling sunglasses from her purse and checking a cellphone.
“How can you afford a cell?” When she didn’t respond. I studied her protruding cheekbones. “Why are you so gaunt?”
“I have a fast metabolism. You know that.”
I didn’t warn her that Liam was staying with me. I needed him to see her as she was now. So he’d be over her once and for all.
When we got home, Viv asked if she could use the shower. I offered to put her clothes in the laundry and I made up the pullout. Then I ran to the pizza place on the corner. By the time I returned, Liam was storming out of the house.
“What the fuck!”
Berkhout is brilliant in the use of her prose in this book. The thoughts and conversations that Edith has are done in such a modern-day tone and feeling that a reader can almost feel as if they were standing by the young woman as she expresses herself. Yet the moments where Edith is quietly contemplating a piece of art or a person’s expression are vivid. Berkhout is not only an expert wordsmith but also a detailed observer of the human condition.
The next day at lunch, I dropped the millefiori into my cardigan pocket, grabbed my purse, and roamed through the Canadian galleries. I thought about how Henry likely came here on his lunch breaks too, before his years on night shift. He probably stood in the exact same spot I was standing in now, in front of The Jack Pine by Tom Thomson.
Pictured was a dark green, solitary tree on a rocky shore, its threadbare branches deformed against the yellows, m father’s favourite work. We sold laser reproductions, mugs serviettes, T-shirts, and magnets of it in the gift shop. I bought Liam the Jack Pine hotpot holder after we’d planned to go camping in Algonquin Park, but I never saw him use it.
In the same room was The Tangled Garden. This painting, which soothed my mother all those years ago, had the opposite effect on me. The closer I got to it, the more I felt the tumultuous garden of all summer endings. Where cyclopetals in the shadows, surrounding the viewer in vibrant mayhem. There was no sky, no air. I passed it as quickly as possible, puffing on my inhaler and detouring through the Hirst room on my way back to the office.
Nina Berkhout has not only written an excellent coming-of-age novel with The Gallery of Lost Species but also looks at the effects of the events of youth on a adult. A great read and a notable work of literature.
Link to House of Anansi’s website for The Gallery of Lost Species