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.
|Publisher:||St. Martin''s Publishing Group|
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About the Author
NINA BERKHOUT is the author of five poetry collections, most recently Elseworlds, which received the 2013 Archibald Lampman Award for the year's best poetry. Her earlier work has been shortlisted for THIS magazine's Great Canadian Literary Hunt, The Archibald Lampman Award, and the John Hirsch Award. Originally from Alberta, she now resides in Ontario, where she works at the National Gallery of Canada.
Read an Excerpt
The Gallery of Lost Species
By Nina Berkhout
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Nina Berkhout
All rights reserved.
My sister was a child beauty queen. Whenever she'd win another ten-pound crown, our mother would regurgitate the epic tale of Viv's first pageant as though it were a feat comparable to conquering Everest. Constance was eight months pregnant with me — eight months! — when she snuck her blue Chevy Malibu out of the garage and drove her three-year-old daughter all the way to the Kingston pageant and back, through a freak blizzard, without winter tires.
Arriving at the local Legion, she yanked a half-asleep Vivienne from her snowsuit. Opening her umbrella against the squall, she got out of the car and ran around to the trunk to extract a tutu obtained at Goodwill, which she'd refashioned the week prior.
Diving into the back seat, she groomed Viv in record time, painting her face and costuming her. She used a butane curling iron and an Avon travel kit bought from a neighbour for the occasion. The kit was made up of a wing for brushes and applicators, and three drawers containing six eye pencils and one liquid eyeliner, three lip pencils, forty-six eyeshadows, thirty lip glosses, six press powders, one mascara, three lipsticks, and four nail polishes.
With seconds to spare, Constance ushered my sister through the stale-smelling pool hall to the registration table. She pinned a number onto the stiff netting of Viv's skirt and shoved her onto the makeshift stage, reminding her to wink at the judges.
Over the next few hours, Vivienne competed against girls with names like Isis, Aurora, Mercedes, and Trinity. The panel was tickled by her uncompetitive, laissez-faire attitude. With her crystal-embellished outfit, her spellbinding eyes and pouty lips, she was awarded the highest honour — the Mini Supreme Queen crown — along with five hundred dollars, a Red Lobster voucher, and a hot pink double-column trophy standing twice her height.
As the story goes, I kicked so hard when Viv won that my mother thought she'd deliver me on the Precious Cutie-Pie pageant floor. She sped home before my father arrived from work, hastily spreading Viv's loot across the dining room table. Thanks to our selfless mother's adventurous spirit, my sister's fate was sealed on that tempestuous day.
Moreover, Constance was unashamed to admit to living vicariously through Vivienne. "I did not have such opportunities, ma fille!" she'd exclaim in her sophisticated accent as she considered my sister's prizes.
When she was younger, our mother dreamt of becoming a celebrity. She left France for les États without looking back. In New York, she endured the drudgery of au pair work, and saved every cent she earned for her intended move to Hollywood. Then she met our father.
Fresh off the Greyhound from rural Ontario, he painted Hopper knock-offs in an unheated loft, took night classes at the Art Students' League, and worked as a cleaner during the day. Modelling for extra cash, Constance was intrigued by this unconventional man who sketched her hundreds of times in their first weeks together, or so she said.
Nulla Dies Sine Linea. No Day Without a Line. That was the League's motto. And Henry Walker fed Constance Moreau plenty of lines, reciting Leonard Cohen to her through the night, promising her the moon. But he got to New York too late, studying in a place whose importance was dwindling. Influential artists had been replaced by untalented kids with hefty allowances, and my sister and I ended up being named after the songstress and the star our mother never became: Vivien Leigh, the manic actress who died of TB, and Édith Piaf, who also perished in a rundown way.
After two years in New York, Constance was ready to move on. Henry's paintings weren't selling and nobody would take his work for barter anymore. He couldn't make the rent or pay for classes.
My mother bought herself a one-way ticket home to her Paris banlieue, settling back in with her parents. Soon after she found a job at a cosmetics counter, the morning sickness began. Her mother insisted she send a telegram to l'homme and return to him at once. Henry wrote back, proposing.
Constance wanted to live in Montreal because she'd read The Tin Flute. But in the mid-eighties, the Quebec economy was unstable and the separatist movement was intensifying. Raising a family in such a volatile political climate wouldn't be safe, my father said. They settled in the nation's capital instead, an hour away from the farm where Henry grew up, like Constance, as an only child. After his parents had died, the property had been repossessed by the Crown.
In Ottawa, my father got a job as a janitor in the public service. They purchased a house in Mechanicsville, a blue-collar neighbourhood consisting of small brick houses occupied by rail yard workers and riff-raff, bordered by the river, the Transitway, and the train tracks. Three months later, Viv was born.
"Your papa wouldn't take me to Montreal, so he brought the Saint-Henri slums to me!" Constance repeatedly told us.
"You call it délabré, but this area has potential, Constance," our father asserted when she complained about the bums in the alleys, the halfway houses, and the parks littered with needles.
Mechanicsville was below her. Her haughty airs made it clear that she felt she was meant for something else, something grand.
People used to ask if she was a ballerina. When the neighbourhood housewives gossiped about her foreignness, so as not to appear inadequate she'd say yes, she was a retired soloist from the Bolshoi Ballet. It was a story she wore like armour.
I was born the afternoon following Vivienne's inaugural pageant, a homely, five-pound preemie who was an unwelcome diversion from my sister's victory. I came out by emergency C-section, inflicting an ugly scar on my mother's taut stomach, which distressed her so much she didn't notice I couldn't hear.
An ear infection left me deaf for my first six months. I'd never be able to carry a tune. But Vivienne was my parents' salvation. If I were them, she'd have been my favourite too. Vivienne could dance, sing, and act. Vivienne could draw and paint. Vivienne was beautiful and smart and good. Vivienne was everything I wasn't.
Like the trophy halls of high school, my sister's crowns and sashes were displayed in cases lining our living room walls. The kitchen pantry, which should have contained preserves, was stocked instead with Viv's ruffly dresses, suspended from ropes like extravagant cheerleading pompoms. Sequined shoes cast prisms along the dried goods shelves, and the broom closet held accessories and props — wands, capes, parasols, and endless bins of masks and ribbons.
Our mother collected mirrors from thrift stores and fastened them to my sister's bedroom wall from floor to ceiling. Opening Viv's door, you'd see your broken reflection scattered and distorted like faces in a funhouse. On Con's instruction, across the mirrors, our father attached a barre for Viv's warm-ups. The living room furniture was pushed permanently against the walls so my sister could rehearse her step sequences. It always seemed as if we were in the middle of relocating.
Viv participated in contests in nearby towns and then farther afield, across the provinces, where she competed at regional and national levels. Mostly the pageants were held in community centres, bingo halls, school gyms, and church basements.
I rarely went along. Constance said my appearance detracted from my sister's portfolio. She was ruthless when it came to winning. But she was no different from the other mothers feeding their girls Pixy Stix — a powdered sugar candy in a drinking straw — and Jolt cola backstage, to gain advantage over their adversaries like Olympic dopers.
I wanted to look like Viv. When she had a professional body wave done on her hair, I requested one too. Con wouldn't pay the exorbitant rate twice over, so she gave me a home perm. Instead of voluminous, syrupy curls like my sister's, my black hair came out as a tightly crimped poodle's mane. When my mother waxed the blond peach fuzz off Viv's legs, I stole my father's razor and did the same on my arms, only to have the hair grow back coarser, darker. I begged for hoops in my ears like Vivienne's, but the piercings infected my lobes, which expanded like cherries. I couldn't wear earrings for years.
The older I got, the less I envied my sister. The tanner spray and the eyebrow tweezing burned her skin. The dyeing of eyelashes, which Constance accomplished with Q-tips, made her eyes water uncontrollably as the falsies were applied with glue. Often Viv snagged an acrylic nail on her costume, tearing off the real fingernail beneath it in the process. Then there was the dental flipper, a removable partial denture that caused Viv so much pain she couldn't chew for days after a show.
My sister wasn't one for complaining, though. She even took to slapping herself in the face before heading out to competitions, to get the blood flowing. Eventually, when she came home, I asked her why she persisted with the pageanting.
"If I play along, I can do what I want. If I don't, she'll destroy me," she replied, pulling out her fake teeth and tossing the apparatus in the trash. "Whoops, I seem to have lost my flipper," she added smugly, and walked off.
Of the two of us, I was the pragmatic one. Knowing there would be consequences, I fished the flipper out, rinsed it off, and slipped it back into its protective carrying case in the medicine cabinet. It had cost our father two weeks' salary, after all.CHAPTER 2
What Viv meant by doing what she wanted was sketching and painting like Henry, and accompanying us on excursions during her downtime from lessons and contests.
"I am not bound by the sun!" she'd say, mocking our father in his fondness for trite expressions. "There's no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. We Walkers were born to walk!"
He'd tell us this when we were knee-deep in snow, goading him to finish his charcoal studies of the Gatineau Hills so we could go for hot chocolate at the chip wagon in Hull. "Constance! We've been to Hull and back!" was his standard greeting when we returned home, and sometimes she was there and sometimes she wasn't.
Our father drew mostly in winter. Bundled in multiple layers, we plodded after him in our cumbersome second-hand snowshoes, making slow progress along the escarpment while he lectured us on historical treks Up North, pausing now and then to blow his nose and to make sure we were still there.
Henry fantasized about taking us on a northern expedition. Up North, he'd say, as though it were a precise, cosmopolitan location like Milan. "One day we'll go Up North, you two!" His voice resonated through the evergreens. "This is practice for the Big Trip!"
Up North was the only place we'd ever see white in its purest form. He said we'd mine diamonds there for Constance. Our father was always on his way to finding a new life-altering site, an inner shrine, a revelation, although he never entirely found it.
All winter he made oil paintings consisting of overlapping slopes of white, none of which resembled his preliminary sketches. He worked in his "studio" behind the house, a poorly insulated shed with a west-facing window and a space heater plugged into an outlet that routinely emitted sparks.
He transported his zinc and titanium-white creations down into the basement to dry. Inhaling her cigarettes with half-closed eyes like a bored film star, our mother complained about the fumes. "Henri, you keel me with these chemicals!"
Once, Viv kicked her orange Nerf ball smack into a large canvas propped on a shelf, smearing the landscape beyond recognition. The ball left white circles on the concrete like fingerprints — marks that were still there years later when I pulled back the carpet, as I was clearing out the house.
Our father had worked on that painting for months. Viv was distraught. "You've improved it, Sport!" he said, tousling her hair and chucking the thing out onto our snowy porch, where it stayed till spring thaw.
When he wasn't painting, my father called himself the Collector of Useless Things.
He taught me to categorize paint tubes and brushes before I could walk. He encouraged me to checklist stuffed animals and alphabetize and colour-code my books. He bought me tackle boxes to organize shells and buttons and my mother's perfume bottles, which he retrieved from the bathroom garbage — Christian Dior, Guerlain, Givenchy — ornate glass decorated with roses and doves from which I'd sniff the dregs of floral essences.
His lifelong obsession wasn't with relics themselves, which got dusty and took up space. The fixation was with the search for the exemplary paperweight or the valuable Coney Island postcard. While Constance and Viv were off at dance class or stage coaching or vocals, these quests kept him going. My father always brought me along. He said I was endowed with special artifact-finding powers, when all I did was follow him around without discovering anything extraordinary.
It was impressive the way he persevered. Saturdays were devoted to garage sale hopping, often in the rain. For hours Henry sifted through the neighbourhood's failed projects, foraging for treasures amongst soggy boxes of wool and bamboo needles, woodworking tools, lozenges of coloured glass, and fitness paraphernalia. Trappings nobody wanted to be reminded of because they were associated with a more hopeful time in their lives.
Sometimes we'd leave the city for drives on unexplored dirt roads, spending chilly mornings unscrewing antique doorknobs and hinges from tenantless farmhouses, and getting chased by dogs.
Once, we pursued a rainbow down one of those gritty stretches. I went in one direction and my father in another. When we met up again, he told me the rainbow ended on some railway tracks and that he'd walked right through it.
Then there were the estate sales, in houses like those from The Young and the Restless, which Viv and I watched with Constance after school. The hushed ambience, plush curtains, and locked doors thrilled me. Those sombre homes were where my father picked up his prized paperweights.
The times I watched him remove his collection from their compartmentalized boxes were enthralling. Cautiously, he would place the weights on the kitchen table with a sly smile, as if he'd crafted them himself. I remember one morning when he cooked up strawberries and bacon while I sat with my chin propped on the mint green Formica surface, gazing into these miniature universes as the sunlight moved across the room, changing what I saw.
How those swirls of colour, those flowers and animals, got inside the orbs, I couldn't figure out.CHAPTER 3
Of the four of us, only Viv didn't have the compulsion to gather objects around her.
You'd think she'd have copied Constance, cluttering her vanity with makeup and costume jewellery, but outside the pageant world, my sister remained unadorned.
She ignored her shelves of trophies and her reams of rosette ribbons. Her room had minimal furnishings and lacked decoration other than the jagged mirrors and a dark mound of clothes at the foot of her bed. She didn't look into the mirrors and draped her sweatshirts over them when she wasn't practising at the barre. Regularly, I peered beneath the fabrics to examine myself, squeezing at the overhang of fat above my waist and striking poses to appear thinner.
Unlike Viv's spartan quarters, my room was jammed with books that Henry told me were important to my future education. I read before school and at night and whenever I could in between. I still didn't get through all the tomes, and the ones I did finish, I couldn't make sense of.
Novels, poetry, and theatre lined my closet and dresser drawers. I had the Aeneid, The Divine Comedy, the Decameron, Paradise Lost, and Shakespeare's collected works. I also had Russian novelists whose names I couldn't pronounce and dictionaries with old, marbled bindings.
I stacked volumes under my mattress and along the windowsill. Henry made me a chair from books and book steps leading up to my bed. The books were full of mould spores and I developed permanent respiratory problems that were alleviated by an inhaler.
Viv hardly read a thing. She breezed through her studies without trying, whereas the sole class I was any good at was English. When I won the school's Bookworm Contest, the teacher blew up a picture of my head and pasted it onto a worm's body that she fastened to the awards board in the hallway.
Henry picked us up from school that day. He was delighted by my accomplishment and carried my prize — an Encyclopaedia Britannica box set — to the parking lot. I felt weighed down by the heavy reference set as soon as I received it. I didn't want it in my room.
In the car, my father congratulated me with a thin A. A. Milne volume of When We Were Very Young.
"Just what you need, another book," Viv said.
"A 1924 first edition, and I found it used! Guess for how much!" He turned back to us, beaming.
"Ten bucks," Viv replied, her voice flat.
"A dollar, can you believe it!"
Excerpted from The Gallery of Lost Species by Nina Berkhout. Copyright © 2015 Nina Berkhout. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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