Review: The Gallery of Lost Species by Nina Berkhout

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I started this review in September and then kinda let it collect dust because I wanted time to be able to sit down and think about it. Now’s that time!

When this book came out 2 years ago, it was featured in the newspaper and I put it on my TBR list but never got around to reading it. I kept meaning to read it but it wasn’t until a couple months ago when I was looking for a book starting with G for the alphabet challenge that I realized I had the perfect opportunity!

Plus, read til the end for a little blog/grad update!

The Gallery of Lost Species by Nina Berkhout
Genre: Literary Fiction

Edith grows up in her big sister Vivienne’s shadow. While the beautiful Viv is forced by the girls’ overbearing mother to compete in child beauty pageants, plain-looking Edith follows in her father’s footsteps: collecting oddities, studying coins, and reading from old books.

When Viv rebels against her mother’s expectations, Edith finds herself torn between a desire to help her sister and pursuing her own love for a boy who might love her sister more than he loves her. When Edith accepts a job at the National Gallery of Canada, she meets an elderly cryptozoologist named Theo who is searching for a bird many believe to be extinct. Navigating her way through Vivienne’s dark landscape while trying to win Liam’s heart, Edith develops an unlikely friendship with Theo when she realizes they might have more in common than she imagined; they are both trying to retrieve something that may be impossible to bring back to life.

The Gallery of Lost Species is about finding solace in unexpected places – in works of art, in people, and in animals that the world has forgotten.

Get it here: Barnes & Noble | Kobo | Amazon

I mention when I found out about this book because I feel like I ended up liking it more because of when I read it, and I’m kind of spooked by how well suited the timing felt. Though it’s mostly focused on family drama, we mostly follow one character and when the book hits its stride she’s in her mid-20s, has just received a certificate for museum collection, and begins a job at a gallery in Ontario.

Well wouldn’t you know it, but I happened to start this book in my (early) 20s, just before starting my own degree in a similar field, and having just moved to Ontario.
See what I mean by spooky?!

Two years ago, I had maybe begun to think about grad school, though at that point I was leaning more towards libraries than archives (archival work seems more in line with the work the MC is doing), and I’d actually only decided on Ontario a couple months before I moved! So I was kind of in awe while reading it because I was seeing what Edith was doing at the same time as learning the basics of archiving in my own classes. Our lives didn’t match up in many other ways but I still really loved having this connection with the MC.

Still, the story doesn’t particularly focus on this archival/museum work so if you, unlike me, are not in a similar graduate program there’s still a lot to enjoy (though ‘enjoy’ might not be the right word here because it’s a pretty sad book). When I say family drama above, it goes much beyond simple arguments; some of the topics covered in the book include alcoholism, gambling, addiction, FAS, and poverty to name a few. There’s very little to raise your spirits here and there are some slow-moving parts to the story but it’s an honest, moving – and even a tiny bit hopeful – depiction of life and family.

Most interesting is Edith’s friendship with Theo and the ways that his search for endangered animals parallels her own work in the museum. A lot of her work involves describing the materials that the gallery has acquired, many of which are currently in storage. In her words, her process of documenting these items before they disintegrate is very similar to Theo attempting to document his animals before they go extinct. They’re an odd pair, a strange young woman and this secretive old man, but Theo allows Edith to create a more real connection with the people around her where her family has certainly let her down.

There is room for some humour in their relationship too. One of my favourite moments of dialogue between the two, around when Edith draws comparisons between their two lines of work, is when Theo takes her to a farm that creates new species of animals:

Theo: “I come here when I am trying to make sense of human nature.”

Edith “You visit an unnatural place with unnatural animals to do that?”

They’re both very strange people but they work well together, though Edith feels a little hypocritical here since she spends most of her time looking at a particular piece in the gallery: The Child’s Dream, a unicorn in a tank of formaldehyde (it’s a real thing – thank you to this reviewer who included the name of the art piece since I forgot. You can follow that link if you want but since it looks like no dream of mine, I didn’t want to subject any of you to that unwillingly).

The story feels a little autobiographical in that the main character’s schooling and work seems drawn from the author’s own experience in galleries, as well as the locations she uses being those she’s grown up in (though I’m pretty sure the wild family drama is all her own invention).

I missed the author when she came to a book event in Toronto a couple months ago but her publisher was kind enough to offer me a copy of her latest, The Mosaic, so I’m looking forward to getting started on that one! And maybe next year I’ll actually write reviews within a reasonable time period 😛

About the Author: Nina Berkhout is the author of five poetry collections, most recently Elseworlds (Seraphim Editions), which received the 2013 Archibald Lampman Award for the year’s best poetry. Her earlier work has been shortlisted for THIS magazine’s Great Canadian Literary Hunt, The Archibald Lampman Award and the John Hirsch Award. Originally from Alberta, she now resides in Ontario, where she works at the National Gallery of Canada.

And that is likely my last review of the year!

If you remember from one of my check-ins earlier in the year, I said I’d be going on a bit of a hiatus and posting much less because of grad school. Obviously if you’ve been following this blog, that turned out to be a huge lie as I’ve been posting almost more regularly than ever before.

But I think I might really mean it for this upcoming term. I’ll post a fuller update in the new year with what my real hiatus might look like but for now I hope you’re all enjoying the holidays and have some fun celebrations planned for the weekend!

Happy New Year!

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