Friday, October 6, 2017

Book Review - Philip Pullman's The Collectors

The Collectors by Philip Pullman
Published by: Alfred A. Knopf
Publication Date: September 22nd, 2015
Format: Kindle, 24 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy

On a winter's night at Oxford College Horley sits in the Senior Common Room with his guest Grinstead. As the room gets colder and the hour gets late the other occupants slowly leave while the two talk about Horley's recent purchase of a painting and it's link to another piece of art, a rather terrifying bronze monkey. The painting Horley bought because it was a rather arresting portrait of a young women with an enigmatic air whose expression seems to always be changing. The dealer he bought it from had already made the sale so the story that came with it appears to be genuine. The painting has never been in one owner's hands for long. But wherever it goes the bronze monkey is soon to follow, though occasionally it is the monkey that arrives first and the painting shows up later. These two objects have some connection that cannot be broken as the provenance of the two pieces has undoubtedly shown. As it so happens the monkey has just arrived in Horley's possession as payment for a debt just after he purchased the painting. He hasn't even opened the packing case but the fact of it's arrival proves the story to be genuine. At this point Grinstead almost demands of his host that the time has come for Horley to show him these two pieces. They return to Horley's rooms where things take a turn. Grinstead has not been entirely honest with Horley and the story that was told wasn't new to him. These two pieces have a storied past steeped in mysteries from a distant world. And their subjects? They might just be pleased at the fate of these two men.

The Collectors never registered on my radar when it was first released in 2014 because it was an audiobook and while I am a fan of books in all forms there's something about audiobooks that I just tune out. Therefore my recent discovery that it was released as a short story for Kindle was a joyous surprise because it took me back to the beginning of Lyra's story in The Golden Compass and reconnected me to what I loved best, Lyra's life at Oxford before her journeys began. If there's one image seared in my brain from His Dark Materials it's Lyra sneaking into the Retiring Room at Jordan College. That musty and fusty domain of the male teachers that holds so much interest to the young girl and also catapults her into her destiny. With Horley and Grinstead I felt I was back in that room hearing about the adventures as the true armchair traveler that I am. I was totally absorbed until the story went a little too Douglas Adams and I felt Dirk Gently wandering about. But issues aside, what Pullman does here is to tap into the zeitgeist of the traditional English ghost story and deliver his own spin on classics like The Turn of the Screw and The Woman in Black. There's not just the mystery surrounding these two pieces of art which is almost timeless, but something akin to an ancient Egyptian curse. Something about these kind of tales that fascinate people down through the generations. Why else would people still talk about the curse of Tutankhamun?

This story taps into something primal with this idea of worlds touching and bleeding into each other and through this we get another way to look at ghosts. When I was little I had an imaginary friend. Years later I started to wonder if he was actually imaginary. I remember when we moved across the street I told my parents that Robbie couldn't come over anymore. Later I learned that the previous owner of our old house had hanged himself in the garage, right near where I saw Robbie. What if Robbie was a ghost? Or, here, what if he was someone from another world who slipped through and played with me until one day he couldn't. Maybe it was his ghostly tether or maybe it was his doorway into this world. Whatever it was this story showed me another way to look at the world. Yet this little glimpse into the fluidity of worlds was nothing for what I felt for the connection the two pieces of artwork had for each other. The painting was of Lyra's mother, Mrs. Coulter, before her marriage, and the bronze was of her daemon. While within Pullman's stories these two are morally ambiguous characters leaning towards being unrepentantly evil their connection even after death is so touching to me. That their link was so strong that inanimate objects that are basically their totems or avatars must always be together shows the power of love. They had each other and would always return to each other. So while yes, this is a ghost story, true ghost stories always, deep down, highlight something more, something human, and here, it's the power of love.


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