The Strand Bookstore’s slogan, affixed to ubiquitous tote bags and T-shirts, is “18 Miles of Books.” The Secret of Lost Things, a first novel by former Strand employee Sheridan Hay, is noticeably shorter. Nevertheless, Hay packs its pages with Tasmanian hat shops, Argentinian desaparecidos, a mysterious Herman Melville manuscript, a Polish playboy, a pre-op transsexual, an albino, an orphan, and an encomium to the Strand itself. There are at least two, possibly three separate novels, crammed into Hay’s midsized volume.
In what will be a surprise for anyone who has ever visited the Strand, there are organizational principles at work there, and in Hay’s novel, as well—just not particularly effective ones. The owner of Hay’s fictional bookstore, here renamed the Arcade, instructs the heroine, Rosemary, “Order by poet, mind you. Only by poet. Don’t give a damn about editors and translators—that’s all a charade…. Remove all anthologies! Alphabetical that is all.” Hay doesn’t embrace quite the same system. The novel begins as a coming-of-age story in which 18-year-old Rosemary arrives in New York from Tasmania. It ends as a rather less satisfying literary mystery in which Rosemary and several Arcade employees are on the trail of a lost Melville novel. In between, and touching on both narratives, is thick description of the Arcade and its cloyingly oddball employees. Hay has a passion for the grotesque and none of her characters is quite spared. Rosemary, foreign, flame-haired, orphaned, perilously naive, is quite the most normal of the group.
Rosemary maintains that “The Arcade’s charm is oddly absolute.” Hay’s is not. She has a sensitivity to character, and the first chapters, set in Tasmania, are unsentimental and robust. But in the New York passages, she too often veers towards the precious (“A bookstore [is] also a reliquary for the bones of strange creatures. Mermaid’s tails, unicorn horns”) and the weighty pronouncement (“How illusory is any accumulation of knowledge.” )
Hay’s passion for her material is apparent, as is her passion for literature, but she hasn’t yet discovered how to translate those interests into convincing narrative. She writes at the novel’s opening, “I hadn’t heard of [the Arcade’s] reputation for housing lost things: books once possessed and missed or never possessed and longed for.” The first novel is itself too acquisitive, wanting to pack far too many books, stories, characters, and quotations between its thin covers.