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The Collector of Lost Things by Jeremy Page

collector of lost things auk
collector of lost things auk
collector of lost things auk


Highlights: A convincing Victorian adventure story told by an unreliable narrator, with stunning Arctic scenery and creatures.
Synopsis: In 1845, an English naturalist sets off for the Arctic in search of the last remaining traces of an extinct bird.



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Strong characters and spooky links between them, plus vivid seafaring imagery.


The many harrowing hunt scenes will be difficult for some readers to take. (Conversely, some may find the resulting animal rights message too overt.)

Posted April 21, 2014 by

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As The Collector of Lost Things opens, it is 1845 and English naturalist Eliot Saxby has set out on Captain Sykes’s Arctic-bound vessel to search for the last remaining traces of the great auk, a bird presumed extinct. His patrons are a group of London collectors with money riding on whether this penguin-like bird is actually gone without trace. Saxby’s task is to bring back evidence that will prove the birds’ fate once and for all.

“The great auk is extinct. However, there’s a part of me that refuses to believe it. I suppose that’s the part of me that is known as hope.”

On board the Amethyst are many salty characters, including Sykes himself, a jovial but possibly sadistic leader; Talbot, the taciturn and frostbitten second mate; Edward Bletchley, a gentleman coming along for hunting adventures; and Clara Gould, his ‘cousin.’ (The relationship between Bletchley and Clara is rather unsettling, with the hint of incest bringing to mind A.S. Byatt’s Angels and Insects.)

Curiously, Saxby is convinced that he has known Clara before, nearly a decade ago – except then she was known as Celeste Cottesloe, daughter of a Norfolk country squire whose bird egg collection he was busily repairing and cataloguing. Celeste seemed to be a prisoner in her room; she would whisper out to Eliot from the keyhole, begging him to help her escape – which he did, but to disastrous effect. Is Clara actually Celeste? Saxby seems certain, but when he recounts the tale for Clara she receives it as just that: an interesting story, but one that has no bearing on her personal life. The idea that Saxby might be delusional, or at least emotionally disturbed, makes him a deliciously unreliable narrator.

collector of lost things

En route to the distant rocks where the great auk was last seen, the crew stops at many points for what seems like arbitrary and gratuitous hunting. They harpoon a mother and baby whale for fun, behead a walrus just to keep its tusks, and club dozens of seals. Sykes remains a fairly impartial narrator through it all; Page, though, clearly finds the Victorian sailors’ brutal legacy troubling. Through Bletchley, who spends the rest of the voyage traumatized after a wounded baby seal looks directly into his eyes, Page delivers a sobering message: “We have filled the hull of this ship with dead things. It is the weight of their souls that has caused us all to suffer.”

Some may find this animal rights message too obvious, but after such distressing material it is hard to disagree that our relationship with nature has for centuries been unhealthy and exploitative. The harrowing nature of this Victorian-era narrative also reminded me of Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie, another seafaring novel that descends into gory tragedy.

The story of Saxby’s fictional great auks is engrossing (if slightly unlikely), so I won’t spoil it here. Page’s descriptions of his Arctic setting and fauna are very evocative. At one point during a landing, Saxby leaves the others behind and walks out onto an ice sheet, where he soon gets lost. Even though I happened to be reading this book while riding through Tuscan wine country, I still felt the sense of vastness and isolation keenly; I even fancied I could feel the searing cold. As Talbot asserts, “They say hell is flames, but I disagree. It is this—it is frozen.”

British author and photographer Jeremy Page has written two previous novels (Salt and Sea Change), both of which also share something of a maritime theme – reflecting his upbringing near the Norfolk saltmarshes.

An arctic adventure story fueled by obsession, passion, and gothic influence, The Collector of Lost Things is a compulsive literary suspense novel

The worlds of ocean and ice were meeting in a frontier of rage, as if the Earth had torn in two along this line. This was a place, if there ever was a place, where you could disappear . . .

The year is 1845 and young researcher Eliot Saxby is paid to go on an expedition to the Arctic in the hope of finding remains of the by-now-extinct Great Auk, a large flightless bird of mythical status.

Eliot joins a hunting ship, but the crew and the passengers are not what they seem. Caught in the web of relationships on board, Eliot struggles to understand the motivations of the sociopathic Captain Sykes; the silent First Mate, French; the flamboyant laudanum-addicted Bletchley; and most importantly of all, Bletchley’s beautiful but strange ‘cousin’ Clara.

As the ship moves further and further into the wilds of the Arctic Sea, Eliot clings to what he believes in, desperate to save Clara but irrevocably drawn back into a past that haunts him—and a present that confronts him with a myriad of dangers.

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Rebecca Foster

American transplant to England. Former library assistant turned full-time freelance writer and book reviewer. Check out all my articles.


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