Just as thirteen year-old Edith Walker is about to leave childhood behind, she thinks she spots a unicorn high on a slope while hiking. Her daydreamer father Henry convinces her that what she’s seen is real. Edith’s sighting of the fabled creature – and her unfailing belief that the imaginary creature will eventually be found – sets in motion a series of events that impact the next decade of her life.
Edith grows up in her big sister Vivienne’s shadow. While the beautiful Viv is forced by the girls’ overbearing mother Constance to compete in child beauty pageants, plain-looking Edith follows in her father’s footsteps, collecting oddities, studying coins and reading from moldy books that only serve to exacerbate her asthma.
Eventually, a family trip to the Rocky Mountains and a chance encounter with a handsome geology student named Liam changes the course of the sisters’ relationship forever. As Viv rebels against her mother and pageantry to become a painter, she embarks on a downward spiral into addiction. Edith then finds herself torn between a desire to save her sister and pursuing her own love for Liam.
Fulfilling her father’s wish for her to work in a museum, Edith takes a job cataloguing artwork at the National Gallery of Canada, where she meets an elderly cryptozoologist named Theo. Theo is searching for “Gauguin’s mystery bird” and has devoted his entire life to tracking down extinct animals. Navigating her way through Vivienne’s dark landscape while trying to win Liam’s heart, Edith develops an unlikely friendship with Theo when she realizes they might have more in common than she imagined: they are both trying to retrieve something that may be impossible to bring back to life.
The Gallery of Lost Species is about finding solace in unexpected places — in works of art, in people and in animals that the world has forgotten.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
Edith Walker has grown up in the shadow of her prettier, self-destructive older sister, Viv. But when Viv's pageant-show life begins to fall apart, Edith embarks on a quest to make her family whole. Set against nostalgia-drenched backdrops like the Rockies, Algonquin Park, and Ottawa’s National Gallery, Nina Berkhout’s melancholic novel is a page-turning account of Edith’s heartrending, seemingly unattainable quest. Beautifully written, The Gallery of Lost Species recalls The Goldfinch in its sweep—and its focus on loss of innocence, family tragedy, loneliness, and finding purpose.
Berkhout, the author of five poetry collections (including Elseworlds, winner of the 2013 Archibald Lampman Award), has written a dark debut novel about family responsibilities and unmet expectations. Edith Walker is a 13-year-old girl who lives in the shadow of her older sister, Vivienne, who's pushed into beauty pageants by a mother living out her own fantasies. As both girls grow up, Vivienne rebels against the expectations of her parents and becomes a talented artist, but also becomes lost in addictions. Witnessing her sister's downward spiral and the disintegration of their dysfunctional family, Edith shifts from envying Vivienne to trying to save her and find her when she disappears. Somehow, Edith has to develop her own sense of self in the midst of it all. Edith finds work at the National Galley of Canada in Ottawa, where much of the action takes place. The novel, a love letter to its Ottawa setting, treads between sprawling national structures and the haunts of the homeless. Berkhout's secondary characters lack development, and she occasionally advances plot by having Edith behave in a way that seems inconsistent with the character the reader has come to know. Nevertheless, this quiet debut is an admirable portrait of a young woman searching for the lost and the mythic.