As Eliot Saxby climbs aboard the Amethyst in search of the legendary solitary
Great Auk that is rumored to be extinct, the young naturalist stakes out the same terror as he did working at cataloging birds eggs in an isolated, shadowy observatory of a Norfolk manor house. Fearing heaven, hell, earth, mortality, joy, flesh, eternity, and the soul, Eliot proves to be a shrinking violet of sorts, certainly no more mad than Edmund in King Lear or even Captain Ahab in Moby Dick.
Heading towards an Arctic as dangerous as it is unearthly, Eliot chooses to ignore the evidence of fires, storms and “the filth of butchery.” Eliot—at his peril—remains blithely naïve of the true intentions of the Captain Sykes and Mr. Edward Bletchley, whose fragile cousin Clara is a ghostly and enigmatic presence on the ship. Still, Eliot remains entranced by the intricate workings of the giant vessel, though he begins to feel like “a corpse” in a tomb: things seem to be constantly unsettling him.
Afraid of the foul belly of the vessel and of what the Arctic might have in store for him, Eliot is threatened by first mate Quinlan French. The images of the giant ship and its journey to this strange, isolated Northern land truly unnerve Eliot, jumpstarting his memories of a woman called Celeste who appeared to be held by a darkened presence and a future she wished to be no part of. Once struck by Celeste’s remarkable beauty and her ghostly fragility, Eliot is astounded to see these same qualities in Clara.
An unfamiliarity along with “a soft and unlikely gravity” rises from deep below the cabin. Author Jeremy Page juxtaposes the inherent cruelty of Celeste’s father with Captain Sykes and his incessant need for profit. Sykes is a mercenary, a simple and ignorant man, “a man of greed and no conscience.” Uncertain what he’s gotten himself into, Eliot turns to the illustrations of the extinct Auks, the last record of a bird that has vanished. As the Amethyst leaves the island of Elderly (their last known breeding site) and approaches the Arctic’s great ice floes, Page beautifully renders Eliot’s shock at this inhospitable place.
Greeted by the undeniable proof of man’s murderousness, the real madman of The Collector of Lost Things is Captain Sykes. Along with his ragtag crew of compliant, weather-beaten sailors, Sykes is brutish and cruel, all too willing to go after profit. As he and his men begin to plunder and murder indiscriminately, “the animals nothing but a larder with apparently infinite resources,” Clara and Eliot become our moral compass to the horrific slaughter. There’s “a spark of warmth surrounded by incalculable coldness” as they try to find a world within a world away from the greed and betrayals of the ship. It seems that Eliot has been unhinged by an angel, so sweeping is the power of his imagination and his desire to rediscover the beautiful, elusive
Despite it all, Eliot can't let go of his quest to grapple with the bigger issues of good and evil the Arctic will soon come to represent to him. As he and the crew of the Amethyst suffer through the extreme harshness of the icy, light-filled summer, the spectral green streamers of the aurora borealis twist turn in the heavens with “unknown intent.” Birds are shot from the sky or plucked from cliff ledges, seals are clubbed with oars, hammers and spikes. Page’s Arctic is so grey and white and endless, containing “a welling of blood as bright as fire,” and a frozen sea as vast and lonely as any wild place on earth.
Violent and graphic, the extraordinary writing in The Collector of Lost Things is as unforgiving as Eliot’s brutal, exacting journey to find the Auk. In the process, Page beautifully creates a rousing good sea story with some jaw-dropping descriptive passages and a richly embroidered narrative, a ship world peopled by an interesting cast of characters with the inherent cruelties of an ocean stretching endlessly and immeasurably around them.