When I started writing my second novel, Spellbook of the Lost and Found, my family and I sat around the wood-burning stove in the living room of my parents’ house by the forest while the rain beat at the windows outside, and we drew up a list of lost things.
It started with reading glasses — my mum had put hers down earlier that day and we’d all lifted couch cushions and looked under cook books to find them. Car keys — my husband had misplaced his that very morning. Wallets and phones, hair ties, watches: the little missing things we spend hours of our lives searching for, mostly to discover that they were never really lost at all. Odd socks in washing machines. Umbrellas left on restaurant floors. Winter gloves. Things we put down and forget about until we realize we lost them ages ago.
The list got longer. Teaspoons, cardigans, pens, tools. Receipts, earphones, toys, small change. The things that turn up between couch cushions or underneath car seats. Suitcases in airports. Christmas wrapping paper — always lost in December, but usually the only kind one can find for summer birthdays. That one tiny attachment that makes the food processor work. The last piece of the puzzle, the last playing card in the deck. Things that disappear and never come back.
There are bigger things, of course. Each of us had at least one item we’d lost that, if we had a spell to find things, would be the one object we’d call back. For my sister it was a bracelet lost on holiday in Greece. For my husband it was a teenage diary he hadn’t seen in years. For me it was a family heirloom I’d lost at seventeen: a ring that belonged to my great-great-grandmother. Everybody has at least one of these things — something we feel like we’ll always be searching for.
And then, of course, somebody mentioned marbles. Little toys that roll under furniture, between the cracks of the floorboards — or a figure of speech to mean you’ve lost your mind. And if your mind is something you can lose, so is your temper, so is your voice. So is your heart. So, ultimately, is your life.
You can lose your job. You can lose a love. It’s not something you misplaced, something you’ll find again at the back of your wardrobe. You can’t order a replacement one online. You can lose a friend, a pet, a parent. Things you know you’ll never find again.
As we talked, my family and I, in the fire-lit living room with the forest outside gone all dark and blurry with rain, the heart of my story took shape and started beating. I’d already begun the first draft; I’d already started to follow my characters through their relationships and misadventures. I’d already decided that this would be a book about the things we find and the things we lose. But with the list of lost things growing longer and longer, covering two, three, four pages, from the universal (the fiddly little backs of earrings) to the specific (a boiled egg holder shaped like a British soldier), I realized how much these losses — the little and the almost insurmountable — end up defining us.
That idea — the idea of people being defined (or not defined, as the case may be) by their losses — became a central theme in Spellbook of the Lost and Found. At one point, one of the narrators, Laurel, says: “Everybody’s lost something. They may not know it, but everyone’s got their defining loss: a parent, a pet, a trinket, a treasure, a memory, a belief. Some people have more than one. And if you’re not careful you can spend your whole life looking for what you’ve lost.”
You can lose your way, you can lose your confidence, you can lose your religion. A lot of people would argue that you can lose your virginity, but that’s always been something I’ve been interested in deconstructing. One of the narrators in Spellbook, Olive, argues heatedly that traditional ideas of virginity are usually sexist and heteronormative. The main characters in Spellbook are queer girls who know very well that virginity is a concept, a social construct, that it’s not as clear cut as society likes to think. But in a book about lost things, you can’t escape the concept of virginity, even if you reject its heterosexist implications. And my characters quickly figured out that, if your virginity is something that can be lost, it doesn’t need to fit society’s rigid expectation of what virginity is or should be. In fact, maybe it’s just like any other time you do something new. Maybe every first is a loss. And if that’s the case, maybe not all losses are bad.
The end of the list I wrote that evening, when the line of lost things was five pages long, is a small tally of the things you have to lose to move on. Bad habits. Outdated beliefs. Toxic relationships. Your heart to the right people.
Lizards lose their tails. Snakes shed their skin. We humans lose skin as well, or course: shedding dead cells at an incredible rate, regrowing ourselves entirely every few years. We clip our nails, we brush out our hair, every month a large percentage of us lose blood. Once you start looking at losses you see them everywhere.
The first thing we lose is the stump of the umbilical cord connected to our belly buttons. The last thing we lose is our life. In between your belly button and your life there is a long list of lost things like the one I wrote that evening — the things you forget the moment you misplace them, and the things you will never stop trying to find. The unhealthy things you let go of. The problems you leave behind. We shed it all like skin so there’s room enough to let new things in.