For any Portlander accustomed to the endless rows of used-book excellence that is Powell's City of Books, the Strand Bookstore—our New York City rival—will not impress. Though comparable in size, the Strand is useless for finding a specific title, its shelves in disarray and aisles crowded with stacks of books.
Sheridan Hay sets her debut novel, The Secret of Lost Things (Doubleday, 354 pages, $23.95), in a fictionalized Strand, the Arcade, which also "existed according to a logic all its own, governed by a set of arbitrary rules...." Appropriately, the novel is about a lost book.
The Secret of Lost Things follows a recently orphaned 18-year-old named Rosemary Savage. Having left her native Australia for New York City, Rosemary is elated to find employment at the city's largest used-book store.
When a mysterious letter arrives at the Arcade from someone claiming to have a previously unpublished novel by Herman Melville, a power struggle ensues between Rosemary's co-worker Oscar Jarno and the bookstore's manager, Walter Geist, as they attempt to get ahold of the manuscript. Both involve Rosemary in their plans, forcing her to decide to whom she ultimately owes her allegiance.
Hay's novel is carefully written, and her Arcade carries an almost fantastical intrigue. One employee urges Rosemary to see it not only as a bookstore, "but also a reliquary for the bones of strange creatures. Mermaids' tails, unicorn horns...." The Arcade also employs a Coney Island cast of characters that would be more appropriate in Katherine Dunn's Geek Love. There is the blind, albino manager Geist; Arcade owner George Pike, who speaks only in the third person; the nonfiction expert Jarno, more a database than a human; and the cashier Pearl—a preoperative transsexual.
The city Rosemary inhabits is dark and isolating. No one in her world seems entirely trustworthy, except for the good-hearted Pearl. Strangely, Rosemary is the most disturbing character, alarmingly naive in her efforts to relate to others, particularly Jarno and Geist. Her aloneness adds to the book's sense of danger, and the story ends without showing whether she has successfully survived her loss of innocence or her isolation.
The shadowy, at times thrilling, atmosphere Hay evokes in The Secret of Lost Things is an accomplishment, as is the depth of information revealed throughout about Melville and his complex relationship with Nathaniel Hawthorne. Unfortunately, Hay's preoccupation with research detracts from her efforts to bring her characters to life. The reader is continually left feeling ill at ease—lost in the difficulty of relating to Rosemary and her world. LISA HOASHI.
The Secret of Lost Things