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The Secret of Lost Things by Sheridan Hay

Frank Wilson
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

Sheridan Hay's debut novel, The Secret of Lost Things, is altogether enchanting, not least by virtue of its exquisitely lyrical prose.

The Secret of Lost Things

Publisher: Doubleday
ISBN: 038551848X
Author: Sheridan Hay
Price: $23.95
Length: 354
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2007-03

The verb "enchant," which can mean such things as bewitch or delight or have a magical effect, derives from the same Latin word -- "incantare," meaning to cast a spell through the chanting of words -- that the word "incantation" does.

Sheridan Hay's debut novel, The Secret of Lost Things, is altogether enchanting, not least by virtue of its exquisitely lyrical prose:

"The labyrinthine city waited. It anticipated me. I was swallowed whole, surrounded by a populace buzzing and purposeful, a remedy for grief and a goad to it. I was utterly alone, and lived at first without the imposition of order, too scattered and overwhelmed to effect any. ... My own voice was alien and took my ear strangely. No one addressed me, no one knew my name, and my anonymity was at times a raw joy in my chest, freedom at its most literal, while at others, a source of paralyzing fear. I didn't know then that this was how deep emotion most often comes, from opposite directions and at once, when you are least aware and farthest from yourself."

Rosemary Savage, red of hair and green of eye, is born in Tasmania on April 25, Anzac Day -- Australia's version of Memorial Day -- when people pin sprigs of rosemary over their hearts. Rosemary quotes Ophelia: "There's rosemary, that's for remembrance." Rosemary's mother had come to Tasmania from the mainland, pregnant and husbandless, and Rosemary will never know anything of her father.

Her mother opens a shop, Remarkable Hats, and raises her daughter. "I helped in the store after school. Friends were discouraged. ... We had each other."

They also have Chaps -- Esther Chapman, owner of the only bookstore in town, and mentor to Rosemary.

Hats, however, fall out of fashion; Remarkable Hats begins to fail, as does its proprietor's health. On Rosemary's 18th birthday, her mother dies. A month later, Chaps gives her a present -- a one-way ticket to New York City. Which brings us to the paragraph quoted above.

Rosemary is not alone for long. She takes a room at a small, rundown hotel, where an Argentine woman, Lillian La Paco, sits at the front desk absorbed in the TV. Lillian and Rosemary will remain friends even after Rosemary finds herself an apartment. First, though, she finds a job, at a bookstore called the Arcade -- clearly modeled on the legendary Strand -- whose owner, George Pike, always speaks of himself in the third person.

The Arcade houses not only books, but a menagerie of characters as well. The manager, Walter Geist, is an albino, and increasingly blind. He assigns Rosemary to work in nonfiction with Oscar Jarno. Oscar's head is "perfectly shaped, as if sculpted, and the contrast of his golden eyes against the pallor of his skin was dramatic." He is an expert on fabrics and forever writing things down in notebooks in a neat small hand. Then there's Arthur, grossly overweight, plopped on the floor, legs splayed, surrounded by art books. There's the courtly Mr. Mitchell upstairs in the rare-book room, and Pearl, the black cashier awaiting a sex change and in love with opera.

The story centers on a lost novel by Herman Melville, the manuscript of which someone may have found. Rosemary learns of it from reading a letter to the dim-sighted Geist, who later has her accompany him to the home of a fabulously wealthy collector. Rosemary tells Oscar, who turns the search for the manuscript into a personal quest. Rosemary is infatuated with Oscar -- who is supremely uninterested -- and Geist pines for Rosemary, who is innocently unaware until...

There is a fairy-tale quality to "The Secret of Lost Things." The setting is recognizably New York, but seen through the prism of imagination and so transfigured, as snow transfigures a trash-strewn vacant lot in winter. The "compulsive book buyers ... neurotically convinced that a day missed was a volume possibly lost" seem figures in an old legend. Like conquistadores in search of El Dorado, "acquisitiveness drove them, and envy -- the ingredients ... of any passion."

Rosemary does not so much lose her innocence as simply grow less naive. She becomes more knowing, though without forfeiting her sense of wonder:

"The radiator ticked, expanding with heat, a rival to the green clock, and I felt I too was waiting for something, sitting there in my small apartment. It was nameless, the sense of apprehension, other than to call it waiting. But the feeling had much to do with a folding-over of time ... as the sense that there was no single moment but the moment enfolding me, sitting in my chair.

Anyone susceptible to the sorcery of books is likely to fall under the spell of this one.

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