In Nina Berkhout’s The Gallery of Lost Species, Edith Walker comes of age in the shadow of her older sister, Vivienne (Viv). Viv, whom Edith always characterizes as more talented and more beautiful, was trotted around to beauty pageants by their mother Constance, while Henry, their painter and artist father, encouraged the artistic tendencies in both of the young girls. In addition to being a pageant beauty, Viv was also an accomplished artist and painter, and Edith always felt as though her gift for collecting and categorizing items paled in the shadow of Viv’s talent.
The girls, daughters of a Frenchwoman who dreamed of becoming a celebrity, are “named after the songstress and the star [their] mother never became: Vivien Leigh, the manic actress who died of TB, and Édith Piaf, who also perished in a rundown way,” which hardly bodes well for the sisters. Early on, Edith establishes her dependency on her sister:
“Maybe I idolized her so much because I’d never existed without her. There are no memories of a time when Viv wasn’t there. She was in my past and my present and my future.”
The work centers on when Edith, at thirteen, sees a unicorn on a family trip to Lake O’Hara (during which their mother stayed in the hotel room as she, Viv, and Henry hike). She becomes enamored of mythical and mystical creatures—unicorns specifically—and eventually ends up working in a museum, cataloging works of art in a system called “Avalon,” the significance of which was not lost on me. During her time working at the museum, Edith takes an immediate interest in a new sculpture, The Child’s Dream, a “unicorn” suspended in a (literally and, in my estimation, symbolically) toxic formaldehyde solution. She also befriends an elderly man, Theo de Buuter, a cryptozoologist who studies mythical creatures that may or may not have some tenuous record of actually existing.
The concept of the unicorn as something mythical that many people have seen but no one can document takes on a larger significance as the relationship between Edith and Viv changes over time.
After dropping out of high school, Viv moves away from home and becomes a full-time artist, but also falls into the clutches of addiction. Edith sees it and yet doesn’t, choosing to continue to think of her sister as the beautiful, talented older sister who has so many things she doesn’t. As Viv descends farther into her addictive cycle, though, Edith’s ideal of Vivienne becomes the ever-elusive unicorn.
Berkhout portrays Viv’s talent and subsequent addiction as tragic, but what may be more tragic is how addicted Edith is to doing everything she can to save her sister. She willingly forgives Viv for stealing from her, and coordinates an expensive trip to India to donate part of her liver to Vivienne. She does everything to find her sister again—the sister she knew as a young girl, the sister she idolized, the sister she always wanted to be. But like the unicorn, that dream of her sister may be something that is now beyond recovery.
I empathized with Edith. I also idolized my older sister, and wanted to be her. My sister’s path did not parallel Viv’s, though, but I found myself wondering many times what it would have been like had I experienced what Edith did. Edit narrates, and it felt like, despite the cyclone of her sister’s life, as though she was always living in a fog. This is a testament to Berkhout’s prose, because that feeling of “apartness” came as a direct result of how Edith comes of age always feeling overshadowed by her sister.
Edith grows up in her big sister Vivienne’s shadow. While the beautiful Viv is forced by the girls’ overbearing mother to compete in child beauty pageants, plain-looking Edith follows in her father’s footsteps: collecting oddities, studying coins, and reading from old books.
When Viv rebels against her mother’s expectations, Edith finds herself torn between a desire to help her sister and pursuing her own love for a boy who might love her sister more than he loves her. When Edith accepts a job at the National Gallery of Canada, she meets an elderly cryptozoologist named Theo who is searching for a bird many believe to be extinct. 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.
Nina Berkhout’s 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.