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Nina Berkhout, a well-known poet, applies her sensibilities of that genre to The Gallery of Lost Species to keep the pace moving.

Title
The Gallery of Lost Species
Author
Nina Berkhout
Genre
Fiction
Publisher
Anansi
Pages
335
Price
22.95
Year
2014

On the opening pages of Nina Berkhout's first novel, The Gallery of Lost Species, a 13-year-old girl named Edith Walker spots "a white fleck on green that caused the hairs to rise along [her] spine" on a mountainside while vacationing with her family in the Rockies. It is, she believes, a unicorn – a sighting playfully confirmed by her kindly father, Henry, when he looks at the creature through his binoculars.

This moment, which she describes as "probably the last of my innocent imagination as I left childhood behind," shapes Edith's life, but its impact is not purely symbolic. Also on that mountainside is Liam, a handsome young geologist who falls for Edith's older sister, Vivienne, a former child beauty queen, almost as quickly as Edith falls for him. Over the decade that follows, as Viv spirals into addiction and Liam fades in and out of Edith's life, Edith struggles to understand her responsibilities to her fragmenting family – which also includes her aloof mother, Constance – while also discovering her own vocation as a collector and cataloguer of artifacts.

Berkhout is a well-known poet in Canada's small-press circuit, but rather than falling into slow-moving poeticism she applies her poet's sensibilities to keep the pace moving. Her pithiness can be devastating ("Grief was untidy," she writes. "My mother wanted no part in its damage to her composure"), but it also reflects Edith's gimlet-eyed honesty as a narrator. The only thing Edith fails to see clearly is her responsibility to care for her sister; when Viv goes missing, Edith throws her energy into efforts to find her despite warnings from friends and family that Viv does not care to be found: "Neither Con nor Henry had siblings. I shouldn't have expected her to understand the enduring allegiance I felt toward my sister. How this fidelity transcended the ill will."

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In its own way, Edith's search for her sister mirrors her pursuit of the mythic unicorn, but Berkhout never overuses the metaphor – it remains deeply layered, concealed behind Edith's longing and hurt: "I thought about how we were all caught up by unreachables," Edith reflects, "those lost to us that we couldn't get back, who beckoned from a place off the radar, beyond our grasp."

The novel – one of the most deeply moving stories I have read in many years – reminded me of Natalee Caple's In Calamity's Wake or Karen Hofmann's After Alice in its gentle attention to memory and the pursuit of "unreachables," but The Gallery of Lost Species also harkens back to Hugh MacLennan's and Robertson Davies's heady, art-obsessed era.

Edith's obsession with the unicorn finds a companion in the elderly cryptozoologist Theo de Buuter, who has spent his life studying beings whose existence hasn't yet been proven by science. For Edith, de Buuter offers another way of viewing history's losses: He, "on blind faith, brought the dead back to life by seeking proof of their existence out in a lonely and far-off wilderness." Here, again, Berkhout never overplays her hand: She sketches de Buuter only in outline, the pathos of his search hemmed in by de Buuter's dignity, his own unreachability.

Part of Berkhout's gift is her at once fearless and challenging approach to loss. Berkhout has a baseline understanding of grief – and stories – as unresolvable; she is interested in exploring the necessary response to grief, the next steps, the hard work recovery requires of survivors that pushes them past passivity.

Not that sadness is beneath Berkhout's treatment – she handles Edith's private grief with ineffable tenderness. "When would the past let up?" she wonders. "Like the small bodies of birds Viv once drew, memories burrowed inside me without disintegrating. She existed in my mind as an abstraction now, as imprecise as her paintings and as lost to the present day as the unicorn."

But Berkhout does not let Edith off the hook – or the reader. Loss, she seems to suggest in The Gallery of Lost Species, cannot be the end point, it cannot rule a life. Near the end of the novel, she quotes the famous real-life cryptozoologist Bernard Heuvelmans: "There are lost worlds everywhere." Everyone has lost worlds. The trick is in learning when to let go of our visions. The trick is in learning to live again after they have died.

Julienne Isaacs is a Winnipeg writer.

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