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Writers Fest: Nina Berkhout impresses with debut novel

By Kabriya Coghlan on April 23, 2015

The Ottawa International Writers Festival is taking place from April 22-28.  Apartment613 is previewing some of the participating authors in a series of special posts.

Nina Berkhout’s debut novel is a poignant examination of family and the fractures that can split it apart.  The Gallery of Lost Species is narrated by Edith Walker, who grows up in the shadow of her beautiful but troubled older sister, Vivienne.

Their unhappy mother, Constance, spends all her energy pushing Vivienne to compete in beauty pageants, while their father, Henry, an artist who never found success, tries to nurture a love of the arts in both his daughters.  A family vacation in the Rockies introduces two key moments in Edith’s young life: she sees a unicorn in the distant mountains, and she meets Liam, a boy she immediately becomes infatuated with despite his interest in her sister.

The unicorn may or may not have been a mountain goat, but as Edith grows up it comes to symbolize her desire to believe in things that seem impossible, even when life disappoints her.

Edith is forced into an observing role of her family’s struggles, unnoticed among her mother and sister’s vicious arguments. She watches and worries as financial problems strain her parents’ marriage and Vivienne’s acts of teenage rebellion descend into deeper issues with addiction.

“Edith sort of ends up taking all their problems on and trying to resolve them,” says Berkhout. “But . . . the heart of the story is her trying to break free, in a sense, from her family and try to find her independence and her voice.”

Berkhout has published five poetry collections.  The Gallery of Lost Species is her first novel, but her poetic style still comes across in the stunningly evocative narration.

“The voice of the main character Edith just kind of came into my mind, and as I thought about her and what her story was, I couldn’t really wrap my head around how I would do that in poetry form, so I just kind of began writing,” she says.

At the heart of the novel is the painfully tangled relationship between Edith and Vivienne.  Edith grows up worshipping and envying her sister in equal measure.  She pines over Liam for years and is deeply jealous of Vivienne’s relationship with him, but she is still there to rescue Vivienne over and over when everyone else gives up on her.  As Vivienne battles with addiction, Edith faces the challenge of trying to save someone who does not believe they need to be saved.

“With Vivienne, the sibling bond is something that is so strong that Edith can’t turn her back on her sister, who has so many problems,” says Berkhout.  “I mean, she loves her and she hates her.”

Berkhout’s portrayal of the sisters’ relationship is heart-wrenching, as she explores how far we will go to save the people we love, and how obligated we can feel to our families, but also makes the reader question if at some point Edith’s constant devotion only enables Vivienne.

“I think for a lot of families who have issues with someone who has an addiction . . . you’re kind of banging your head against the wall, because you rescue them and you rescue them and it’s kind of like a broken record, because these problems keep happening again and again as they fall deeper and deeper into their addiction,” says Berkhout.  “So I wanted to explore that as well, you know, how addiction impacts a family.”

Berkhout_Nina_portrait-306-306

Nina Berkhout

As Vivienne flits in and out of her life, Edith takes a job cataloguing artwork at the National Gallery of Canada.  There she meets and befriends Theo, a cryptozoologist who has spent his life trying to track down elusive species that may or may not be real.

“As I wrote more and more about the sibling relationship and Edith trying to save her sister, as her sister’s basically vanishing before her eyes – even though she’s there in the physical form, it’s kind of like her soul is disappearing – I began to see so many parallels with the realm of cryptozoology and that search for something that may be impossible to find,” says Berkhout.

The gallery is a rich setting for the novel – Berkhout works there herself, and her familiarity with the location, as well as the rest of the city, is evident in her writing.  Berkhout was born in Calgary and moved to Ottawa eight years ago.

“I do have an attachment to Ottawa now,” Berkhout says.  “I love the city and the landscape of it.  For me, the setting has to be something that I’m familiar with and that I have a connection to.”

Berkhout will be speaking at the Ottawa Writers Festival alongside two other authors, Obi Simic and Beth Powning.

“Each book has a strong female character, so I think we’ll all be discussing our main characters and their individual journeys and the challenges that they face throughout the novel,” said Berkhout.

Nina Berkhout will be speaking at the Ottawa International Writers Festival on Sunday, April 26. The event starts at 8:30 pm and will take place at Christ Church Cathedral (414 Sparks Street). Tickets can be purchased online and are $15 in advance ($10 reduced) or $20 at the door ($15 reduced). Writers Festival members can get in for free.