An Inventory of Losses by Judith Schalansky review – it can't last

This playful meditation on lost objects, from paintings to actors and islands, is a satisfying mix of history, imagination and detail

What, asks this book, is “more terrifying: the notion that everything comes to an end, or the thought that it may not”? Such issues – impermanence, the fringes of things, the border between here and there – are catnip to the German writer Judith Schalansky. Her first book to appear in English, Atlas of Remote Islands, was a coffee table beauty that read as good as it looked, reporting on isolated places including the coral atoll of Takuu, slowly disappearing beneath the tide of climate breakdown, and Easter Island, whose “self-destruction” by its own inhabitants likened it to “a lemming marooned in the calm of the ocean”. Her next book, the novel The Giraffe’s Neck, was less successful but equally concerned with the inevitability of decay, the flip side of Darwinian evolution: how “everything eventually was finished”.

An Inventory of Losses seems at first no more optimistic than the earlier books: our desire for human creations to endure, as evidenced by the etched copper discs of cultural markers attached to the Voyager space probes, is “a kind of magical thinking … a means of self-reassurance for a species unable to accept its own utter meaninglessness”. But for Schalansky it’s the failure to last that gives our efforts not just pathos but also power, and her book is a philosophical embrace of loss.

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