The Collector of Lost Things - Book of the Month
by Jeremy Page
Jeremy Page writes with passionate and lively generic understanding of his subject, and with admiration and respect for the wild creatures that have the wit and intelligence to survive the harshest of climates. His masterly descriptions of the Arctic are inspired by the cruel beauty of the place. His reader must rejoice and endure at his demand. A powerful and compelling storyteller, he is unsparing of our tears, but finish the book we surely will.
It was an April morning in 1845 when twenty-nine year old Eliot Saxby found himself sitting on his bunk in his rabbit hutch of a cabin aboard the Amethyst. She was a three hundred ton barque bound for the Arctic Circle. Saxby had come aboard with some trepidation, wishing he were a braver man, and a man without secrets.
His quest is a possible sighting of a bird, the great auk, generally believed to be extinct. It is in settlement of a wager between four rich men in a club in St. James St., London. They had argued about the extinction or otherwise of this flightless bird said to be the size of a goose, and taken a bet on it, as gentlemen will. In order to settle the bet they engaged Saxby, who is known to work closely with museums and private enthusiasts in the task of collecting natural wildlife and recording their habits, and have paid for his passage aboard the Amethyst to carry him to the areas in which the bird might have survived...There had once been flourishing great auk colonies across the North Atlantic and Arctic seas, but due to man's predation, they had become extinct within a few decades.
Eliot Saxby has little hope of finding the birds but enjoys sketching and observing all natural wild life. Beneath his reserved and gentlemanly manner, however, he is haunted by the memory of a misadventure in his youth. A fatal misjudgement has preyed on him for more than a decade. He is plagued by agonising doubt in connection with the fate of a girl, Celeste, whom he thinks he failed.
As the ship gets under weigh he finds amusement in observing his fellow passenger, Edward Bletchley, who wears loud checks, bright colours and riding boots (aboard s ship!) and brags of his success with his expensive sporting guns. The first mate, Mr French, has a funereal sense of humour, and the round bellied captain is very rude about his wife, who is safely ashore. The crew amaze him with the courage and skill with which they scurry among the ratlines and the yards unfurling the sails, and they have a salacious humour of their own. He delights in watching the flocks of birds migrating along routes they have used for thousands of years and he sketches everything he sees.
One sleepless night he is alone on deck admiring the starlit world about him when he notices a heavily cloaked and hooded figure standing by the ship's rail, which, turning towards him, he discovers to be Celeste!
That is just the beginning of a long tall story. It's a hell of a yarn. Saxby's heart (and presumably Jeremy Page's) is in the right place, and Page does write extremely well. He had to sell the story to me, but sell it he did. I couldn't put the book down.
Little, Brown Publishers, hardback and kindle, 384pp
Read our interview with Jeremy Page.