The sea was a notable but occasional location in British author Jeremy Page’s first two novels. In THE COLLECTOR OF LOST THINGS, Page’s third and latest work, the sea is practically a secondary player in this character-driven, highly literary story of suspense and betrayal.
The year is 1845. Elliot Saxby, a British naturalist researcher, is hired to undertake an expedition to the Artic to search for the remains of the Great Auk, a large flightless bird believed to be extinct. He books passage aboard the Amethyst, an aging but dependable hunting ship equipped to travel through the icy Artic waters.
As the ship gets underway Saxby is introduced to the crew, including French, the first mate and veteran of many seafaring voyages; and the seemingly gregarious Captain Sykes. Saxby also meets his fellow passengers: Edwin Bletchley, a hunter who takes great prides in his flamboyant clothes as well as his custom-made guns; and Clara, Bletchley’s beautiful but mysterious and withdrawn cousin.
Saxby immediately recognizes Clara as a woman from his past, when she was known as Celeste. But Clara shows no sign of remembering or ever having known Saxby prior to the voyage of the Amethyst. Not long after exploring a small island in Artic sea – believed to be the last known breeding ground of the Great Auk – Saxby and Clara share a secret that shadows the return leg of their voyage and places them both is perilous danger.
The story is conveyed through Saxby’s first-person narration. Thanks to Pages’ graceful but understated prose style we intimately experience each of Saxby’s sensations as well as his inner emotional torments. Hence we feel Saxby’s hesitancy as he explores the various holds and rooms below deck, with their haphazard piles of ropes, hook poles and various kinds of shipping equipment, as well as the chaotic but surprisingly ordered life on deck as the crew sets and adjust the large cloth sails that propel the ship. We also share Saxby’s impressions of the ships crew, with their long beards, woolen caps and jackets that seem like a second skin. And as the ship enters the ice-laden Artic, you’ll find yourself tugging your sleeves and turning up your collar to protect against the biting cold wind and darkening skies.
The suspense builds slowly and then becomes palpable after the exploration of the Auk breeding ground. Yet fans of crime and thriller fiction may have to slightly readjust their perception to fully experience and enjoy it. After awhile, and only a little effort, you discover that while the setting is distinctively different, the Amethyst is essentially a classic “locked room” full of characters who hold various secrets to a different but no less shocking kind of crime.
What is unmistakable is Page’s theme of the heartbreaking results of Man’s dominance over Nature (made more poignant by the story’s setting many years prior to any organized concern or protection of the environment). This is stressed not only throughout Saxby’s recalling of how the Great Auk became extinct entirely through acts of humans, but also in almost every encounter the ship has with the many kinds of animals who inhabit this part of the world. Among the more memorable of such encounters is when the crew disembarks to hunt seals, and a hidden element of Bletchley’s personality is revealed.
Readers curious to know the outcome of Saxby’s expedition will probably have to search the general fiction shelves, instead of the mystery or crime sections, to find a copy of THE COLLECTOR OF LOST THINGS. It’s well worth the little extra effort, and will reward the readers in many unexpected ways. —Alan Cranis