Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 14, 2008

The Secret of Lost Things (2006), by Sheridan Hay

lost-thingsAs visitors to our About ANZLL page know, we define ANZ literature as any book written by a Kiwi or an Aussie, (including expats) or set in Australia or New Zealand, so The Secret of Lost Things can be included in our Australian Fiction category  because Sheridan Hay sets the early part of the novel in Tasmania, and is an expat. She was born in Australia, but has lived in the US for over 20 years and considers it her home.  (Would the Brits claim me as a British writer if after nearly 50 years in Australia I finally finish The Great Australian Novel?  I think not….)

Still, the Australian connection seems a bit tenuous, even by ANZLL’s generous rules.  Hay doesn’t succeed in creating any sense of Hobart as a place because her character, Rosemary, lives such an isolated life.  Her mother makes hats, and discourages socialising.  Perhaps this is because she is a single mother at a time when this was frowned upon, or perhaps it’s her personality.  It’s not clear, and since Mother’s death is the catalyst for Rosemary to depart for New York, it doesn’t matter much.  Rosemary could just as easily have set out for New York from small town America for all the difference it would have made to the novel.  Stary references to Huon pine, to a bloke in Sydney writing graffiti all over the pavements and to Rosemary’s birthday being the same as Anzac Day do not an Australian setting make.

No, the interest of the story lies in the fabulous creation of the Arcade bookstore, peopled with eccentric characters and a bizarre plot.  Rosemary arrives in New York with very little money and very liitle work experience, but the misogynist owner Mr Pike takes her on and places her under the care of Oscar Jarno, aficionado of cloth since boyhood and – to the naive and inexperienced Rosemary – the beguiling man in charge of the Non Fiction section.  Also contributing to Rosemary’s introduction to adult life are Walter Geist, the albino manager of the store who fancies Rosemary; foul-mouthed Bruno and the tough Irishman Jack who work in Paperbacks; kindly Robert Mitchell in the Rare Book Room, and the art-as-porn-loving Arthur Pick. Her female friends are the aspiring trans-sexual cashier, Pearl Bailey, and Lillian, mother of a son ‘disappeared’ in Argentina and receptionist of the Martha Washington Hotel where Rosemary lives during her initial months in New York.

Booklovers like me find the musty ambience of this bookshop alluring, but I’m not so sure about the idea that booklovers must be eccentric! Rosemary’s naivete is a little overplayed when she falls for the asexual Oscar, but hers is not the only unrequited love.  In a scene that would these days end up in the courts as sexual harassment, Mr Geist gropes Rosemary but it’s a coming-of-age novel that leaves its heroine at the end as sexually innocent as she began. Her real passion is for books, and she is entranced by the search to find Herman Melville’s lost novel, The Isle of the Cross – especially since researching his letters brings her to the library and closer contact with Oscar.

The references to Melville (whose Billy Budd I read many years ago) have encouraged me to start reading Moby Dick, via Daily Lit which delivers short instalments daily by email, and already I can recognise some allusions in Hay’s story. Like Rosemary, Ishmeel  is alone and friendless, and both are perceptive narrators on a voyage of self-discovery.  There is a quest, and the unresolved question about what should be done (with the MS) if it had succeeded.  Oscar, like Ahab, is destroyed by his goal, and the timelessness of setting is (I assume) deliberately allegorical too. However, in these days of ready access to Google it’s not necessary to have read Moby Dick to enjoy Hay’s story.  It’s memorable for its Dickensian cast of characters, its exploration of love, loss and grief, and the way the author weaves a reasonably credible mystery into Rosemary’s coming of age.

A most enjoyable light novel.

Author: Sheridan Hay
Title: The Secret of Lost Things
Publisher: Harper Perennial, 2008
ISBN: 9780007243921
Source:  Personal library.


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