Edith grew up in the shadow of her older sister Vivienne, a beautiful girl forced into child pageants by their overbearing mother Constance. Edith instead followed in the footsteps of their father Henry who collected oddities, finding her solace and peace in reading moldy old books. But it was a family trip to the Rocky Mountains that changed their relationship forever.
After meeting a handsome geology student named Liam, the girls returned home to new lives. Vivienne rebelled against their mother, refusing to enter pageants and turning to drugs. Edith took it upon herself to save her sister, but the love that both girls shared for Liam comes between them.
As they become adults, their lives take them in two different directions. Viv moves out West to become a painter but her addiction takes over her life. Edith takes a job at the National Gallery of Canada, where she meets Theo, a retired cryptozoologist. But when both Vivienne and Liam reappear in Edith’s life, her world becomes pulled in different directions.
The Gallery of Lost Species, by Nina Berkhout, is a beautiful novel about finding yourself and your peace in unexpected places. For many people this is in art, music, people, and for some, it is in animals the world has forgotten.
I adored this novel. The characters are so strong and diverse. Edith is neglected by her mother for her older sister but finds her place in the quirky world of her father. At the age of thirteen she is sure she spots a unicorn on a family vacation and her father encourages this belief. This leads her through life placing her faith in the mythical, always chasing after something that isn’t really there. Vivienne rebels against the attention that has been heaped upon her by their mother Constance, who takes her own failures out on her daughters. This leads her into a life where she is trapped by addiction and separated from her family.
The history nerd in me absolutely loved the stories of elusive animals as well as meeting the people who chase them. I really enjoyed the balance between this and the story of two sisters in a difficult relationship, the way the story lines played against each other and off of each other. I devoured this book, not wanting to put it down. Even with very little in the book that was relatable to my own life, I felt as though I was in the story, watching from a very close distance.
Nina Berkhout has published many books of poetry and this is her first novel, something I was surprised to find out. It is well-written and, one of the reasons why I enjoyed this book so much, very Canadian. It’s a quiet, family drama whose characters will stay with you long after you turn the final page.