Click here to read reviewer Swapna Krishna's take on The Secret of Lost Things.
Literary allusions flourish in this unique novel, which shifts from the Australian island state of Tasmania to New York at the turn of the twentieth century, where eighteen-year-old flame-haired Rosemary Savage becomes embroiled in a life-changing plot involving a "lost" manuscript of the famous writer Herman Melville.
The idea of an arranged happenstance shakes young Rosemary's world when her mother unexpectedly dies, leaving the girl devastated with grief. An innocent babe in the woods, Rosemary has spent all of her life ensconced in a provincial Tasmanian town, helping her mother run a small hat shop and living a secluded life. Her only experiences of a really big city were when her mother sometimes took her on buying sprees to Sydney.
As a gesture against her all-embracing grief, her mother's best friend, Esther Chapman, gives Rosemary an airplane ticket to New York, knowing that perhaps a truly big city might just be the cure to the small life that she has lived. At first hesitant to leave her beloved home, Rosemary eventually lands in New York with only a present from Esther, a black-and-white photograph, a present encased in ribbon, and her mother's ashes in a miniature wooden Huon box wrapped in a silk scarf.
Finding a room at the Martha Washington, a decrepit hostel for women, Rosemary tries to cobble her life together, her situation and the death of her mother still weighing profoundly on her. Not one to isolate herself, Rosemary befriends Lillian, an Argentinean woman who works at the reception desk of the hostel. Embracing desperate melancholy, Lillian spends most of her days lamenting the sudden disappearance of her son in Argentina's military coup.
It isn't until Rosemary walks into the cavernous, tomb-like Arcade Bookshop deep in central Manhattan that she feels finally at home.
Here, deep within the giant stacks of nonfiction and fiction, she meets the eclectic cast of characters, many of whom will shape much of her life to come.
A considerable number eccentric people are employed at The Arcade, a hodge-podge of variously failed writers, poets, musicians, singers, all marked
by the clerkish frustration of the unacknowledged and the unpublished: Mr. George Pike, the
curt, bad-tempered owner who lives for money; store manager Walter Geist, every feature pallid, "his white ears like delicate sea creatures suddenly exposed to light;" Oscar Jarno, in charge of the nonfiction section, handsome in a poetic sort of way, with a magnetism in his face that immediately attracts the impressionable Rosemary.
Adding to the mix is The Arcade's arresting cashier, a pre-operative transsexual by the name of Pearl who operates the single register and is Pike's most trusted staff member on the main floor.
These characters come together, acting out their various insecurities with a certain clumsiness, all the while maintaining a single-minded reverence to this dusty, ramshackle world of books.
What really hurls Rosemary into this world is a letter that indicates the existence of a lost manuscript written by Herman Melville, with the famous author's name linked to the great bookish philanthropist Julian Peabody. As she reads a series of passionate missives that Melville penned to fellow writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, she begins to see that Melville had something to tell her about a story that ironically resembles her own journey.
In a novel where the printed word takes on the attributes of "the uncanny leveraging of desire," Rosemary comes to see the value of a life in objects where having eyes shows her "the true meaning of things." Indeed, for all of the other characters in The Secret of Lost Things, books become almost "lustful," retaining or losing their value depending on whose hands end up holding them.
For Rosemary, working in The Arcade unleashes passionate desires that steadily grow as she becomes more confident;
it's her way of searching for an antidote to catastrophe in a world that has
been emptied of all its contents. Although the novel is too dialogue-heavy in places and readers have to suspend disbelief at much of what goes on, this tale is mostly a charming account of a world steeped in literary tradition where books are revered, admired, and even loved.