Book review: The Lustre of Lost Things by Sophie Chen Keller

(cover image courtesy Penguin Random House Australia)

 

Walter Lavender Jr is a remarkable young man.

Gifted with a preternatural ability to locate missing objects in a dazzlingly wide variety of circumstances the length and breadth of New York City, he lives with his mother Lucy at a bakery where the pastries and desserts come alive with such sparkling vivacity that crowds flock to buy them, eat them and be nourished by the communal feel of this thoroughly unique store.

The magically real bakery is his great redoubt – a place of sanctuary for the 13 year old who, due to a motor speech disorder known as Childhood Apraxia of Speech, which means the thoughts in his head end up garbled when he tries to articulate them (it’s in the same class as stuttering) , is socially isolated and bullied, a world unto himself save for the fortifying closeness of his mother and the two bakery employees who are more like family, José and Flora.

He tells himself he is okay with this state of affairs, that it is the price he pays for being different to everyone around him.

But on one transformative day, when the book of seven brilliantly-coloured drawings given by a grateful customer in exchange for a selfless act of kindness by Lucy, that normally sits in the shop window, goes missing Walter sets out to find it, discovering as he does so that many of his assumptions about himself aren’t borne out by lessons he learns from coming into contact with a diverse array of people.

In many ways, as he meets everyone from an elderly Chinese-American widow with a fondness for Caravelle chocolate bars to a street person named Nico with a ready wit and a cheeky grin to a young school girl named Ruby who lives in a well-appointed apartment building to a grieving widower with a mission to complete, Walter comes to understand that he, as much as the objects he is so skilled at finding, needs to be found too, along with his real, not assumed, place in the world.

“During five years of finding, I have learned that everyone loses things, musicians and non-musicians alike – the elderly when they forget and the young when they don’t pay attention and the middle-aged when there are too many things to do. In the things they look for, parts of people turn clear as glass and you can see into them and what they are made of and how they live, without needing to exchange so many words.” (P. 25)

His mission is impelled by an urgent need to save the bakery from closing down.

Without the book to sustain its life-giving magical aura, the crowds drift off, the baked goods Lucy creates with an almost supernatural genius and intuition loses their zest, and Walter’s world comes very close to disappearing forever.

If it sounds like there is a heady, intoxicating blend of magical realism at work in this absolutely delightful and deeply emotional insightful book, you would be right.

At every stage of the narrative, Keller, for whom The Lustre of Lost Things is her debut novel, infuses Walter’s achingly authentic search for connection and meaning with an effervescent buoyant super-realism that enchants and adds a gorgeous sheen to some very real, very confronting truisms.

It almost feels like a fairytale, and in a great many ways it is, with Walter’s ceaseless day-long quest taking him from one end of New York to the other, above and beyond ground, on foot and by subway in an attempt to recover the book and the precious seven drawings within, that seem to have scattered to the four winds, taking the fate of the shop, his mother Lucy, his made family and himself with it.

Everything hinges on Walter being successful, and regardless of whether the magic is real or simply a confidence emboldened by the book’s presence – I like to believe the former since Keller makes it all sound so beguilingly otherworldly and immersive – the key to keeping it alive is for Walter to go far beyond his self-imposed limits and see what truly lies out beyond the confines of the bakery, and within himself.

 

(cover image courtesy Penguin Random House)

 

If it all sounds a little twee, it is anything but.

Keller grounds Walter at every stage in a grinding realism that, while accented and burnished by magical wonder, contains the kind of realities a 13 year old boy should never have to grapple with.

He longs for his father Walter Lavender Sr, to walk back in the door, feeling like he’s missing out on a host of life lessons that went to the bottom of the ocean when his father, an international pilot, went down with his plane in unexplained circumstances.

His journey teaches him that while he may have lost some things due to his father’s absence, that he is anything but alone in the world, and certainly not bereft of a great many valuable life lessons; even so, The Lustre of Lost Things is also quick to recognise that things are lost when people are lost and at no point does Keller lessen their emotional or physical impact with glib magical feyness.

It’s all very real, and Walter, keenly and almost painfully self-aware despite his appealingly buoyant tenacity, knows it all too well.

The joy in this extraordinarily uplifting yet immensely emotionally substantial book is the way Keller depicts anyone who has ever felt alone or lost in the world – every last person Walter meets has lost someone or something that defined or made them in some way, and that loss, coupled with decisions made in the wake, has come to profoundly shape their lives.

“I’d told myself that I was alone because I was different – I had a disorder, I nad no dad. Because of who I was, I would always be lonely, separated. I could not be any other way. But I have met the rat-couple and I am forced to see how I, like them, have chosen to give up and be alone, and to be content in a world of my own. This was not how I was meant to be; itw as how I had decided to be.

“At least they accpepted the reality of their choice and did not try to convince themselves otherwise. I wrapped myself in the warmth of the shop and I convinced myself that when I learned about people through their lost things, these temporary, one-sided reprieves meant that I was not actually alone.” (P. 169)

It is a realisation Walter comes to as his found family expands considerably, he is able to extend kindness, much like mother, and reportedly his father, before him to those people and the selflessness that led to the creation of the book and the rise and rise of the bakery’s success, is extended and perpetuated in touching and beautiful ways.

As a child who experienced incessant, souk-destroying bullying almost all my way through school, and felt cut off from the world as a result, Keller’s down-to-earth yet poetically-articulated thoughtful insights on the way we handle trauma, large or small, is reassuring or instructive.

It never minimises or dismisses the effects of life’s less kind moments, of its loss and regret, its pain and its suffering; on the contrary it acknowledges them front on and without any attempts to explain them away with a sweet Hallmark-ian loveliness (thought that is there is crucial and life-affirming ways that will warm your soul and life your spirit).

What this immeasurably beautiful, quirky and delightful book does do is take those unescapable realities of life and look at the fact that it is we who choose how they affect us, how they mold and break or make us; that’s not to say the responsibility solely falls to us, since it would place an unbearable burden on shoulder already weakened by a great many sad and terrible things.

Rather that we can take these lost and leached-away things and decide to counter them however it makes sense to us – in Walter’s case, it’s by slowly embracing his new expanded, socially-full reality – and in the process, find a great many things we lost and quite possibly, a great many new things besides.

 

 

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