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When a publisher chooses to distinguish a book from others by bragging on the front cover about how many awards it has nearly won I am always a tad sceptical. I can't help but feel that a good book should sell itself, although I acknowledge the commercial realities publishers face. Longlisted for this award and shortlisted for that award, 'What Was Lost' did manage to snag the Costa First Novel Award.
-- The premise --
Twenty years after junior detective Kate Meany went missing, she is "seen" at Green Oaks shopping centre by a security guard with a sleep disorder (Kurt). Lisa, who is sleepwalking her way up the corporate ladder in a record shop, also has an encounter related to Kate that leads her and Kurt to develop a friendship centred around loss and longing.
-- I. Falcon Investigations. Crime was out there. Undetected, unseen. She hoped she wouldn't be too late. --
The novel is told in four separate parts and opens in 1983, twenty years earlier than the main story. This is Kate's story and I found it without doubt to be the most engaging part of the novel. Having recently lost her father, Kate pours all her energies into Falcon Investigations. Her company has a varied remit as she patiently monitors diamond smugglers, bank burglars and suspicious teenagers. Kate is meticulous and keeps her notepad to hand at all times to help her record important information like: 'Gherkins/cucumbers - not same thing: research difference.'
I found Kate's enthusiasm charming and the gap between the way she sees the world and the reality of it led to a great deal of humour. For instance, having carried out an extremely professional service for her local sweet shop, Kate requests a written testimonial to help her attract future customers. She happily anticipates comments that will address the professionalism and effectiveness of her business, and is therefore rather disappointed to receive a note saying "Good girl, Kate! You're a little treasure!" The humour is an important aspect of the novel as a whole but it is perhaps particularly important in this section. Looked at straight-on, Kate's life is very lonely and it looks set to get worse: her Nan wants to place her in a boarding school for girls. Can she avoid this fate?
I enjoyed reading this section of the book as I found it gently humorous and rather bittersweet. The reason for Kate's disappearance is not clear and the section ends with her planning more surveillance so there was a certain amount of tension built up. What happened to Kate? And why?
-- II. Voices in the static. Kurt had no interest in catching shoplifters. He thought maybe he was in the wrong line of work. --
Unlike Kate, Kurt doesn't enjoy his job. Lisa doesn't enjoy hers either. They lack purpose and that means that the rest of the novel is rather darker - and duller. O'Flynn uses the shopping mall to explore the meaninglessness of consumerism and the horror of loneliness. While Kurt endures endless, monotone history lessons about the mall from his partner, Gavin, Lisa suffers furious rants from her boss and co-workers at Your Music. Neither character is particularly interesting and the centre of the book is rather 'flat'. I found it difficult to care about these characters as they seemed simply miserable and stuck in a rut. There is an almost shocking contrast between their weary acceptance of their existence and Kate's thirst for detection. It seems O'Flynn thinks that modern society allows us to lose our sense of purpose and direction without even seeing it go.
Gradually, as they begin to share personal histories and explore Kate's history, the novel became interesting again. Both characters have relevant history which allows O'Flynn to begin weaving the threads of the story together again. I liked the way everything was related and the way the two main characters gradually began to come to life.
A rather odd feature of the novel is the use of vignettes in italics to demonstrate the general impotence of the population who throng the mall. They vary from teenagers who hate their supposed mates to husbands who hate being dragged through the mall by their wives to secret shoppers who hate just about everyone. The common features were hate and loneliness and I found these little insights rather depressing. These are clearly random voices and as such felt extremely artificial. I would say that they distracted me from the story, except that the narrative thread was rather loose through most of this section! Clearly O'Flynn has something to say about modern life and consumer culture, but I'd rather read an integrated story than a collection of hate letters from anonymous speakers. I did not find these vignettes interesting and if I read the book again I'd probably skip them.
-- Staying in the City / The Lookout --
There are two final, very short sections which reveal what happened to Kate. I liked that there was a conclusion and it seemed a fitting one. Everything is neatly tied up in a convincing way. I thought O'Flynn handled this well without stretching credulity.
The final mood was cautiously optimistic, which was pleasant after the furious vignettes. I liked the sense of moving on and moving forward. However, O'Flynn isn't afraid to write about the darker parts of life and although everything is resolved not everything is 'fixed' - some things remain lost.
-- Final thoughts --
The contrast between the energetic Kate and the tired adults is striking and meant that I didn't especially enjoy the second (largest) part of the book. I am not sure whether this was intentional on the author's part, but the second section lacks a sense of pace and direction initially, which meant that I did not find the read gripping. I did really enjoy the opening chapters and I liked the way everything tied together at the end. While looking back over the book to help me write this I was struck by the humorous nature of the second section. I had retained a sense of morose depression, but actually the tone throughout is well struck: lightly comic with a wealth of meaning underneath. I would probably read this again one day and would happily read something by O'Flynn in future.
'What was Lost' by Catherine O'Flynn is an interesting but unusual novel. It was the sort of book that was very easy to read but I couldn't work out exactly where it was going and how all the different pieces fitted together until the very end. At that point I realised that I had enjoyed it very much and felt that it had been an immensely satisfying and moving book.
'What was Lost' could be described as a twenty-first mystery, set in a large and somewhat impersonal shopping centre where a small girl went missing twenty years before. That little girl was Kate Meaney who led quite a sad existence. Her mother had walked out when she was a baby and her father had died suddenly. She was looked after by her grandmother but had few friends, except for Adrian who worked in the sweet shop and was much older. Therefore she took to visiting the newly built Green Oaks shopping centre most days and assuming the guise of a junior detective, with notebook in hand and her stuffed toy monkey for backup.
The story then moves forward twenty years to 2003 where we still find ourselves in the same shopping centre. Kurt works as a security guard and Lisa is the assistant manager in a music store. Both keep seeing things that bring back memories of Kate's disappearance all those years ago and because of this. They are drawn to each other. Also both are deeply unhappy with their lives and visiting the past does not make either of them feel any better. Gradually, they start to piece together what had happened but it is probably too late to change things.
I was drawn to this book mainly due to the intriguing title - What was Lost. It had me asking questions before I started reading, and as the book was written in such an intriguing way, I continually wanted to ask more all the way through. What is so good is that as a reader you have no idea where the book is going and that can be quite surprising.
The shopping centre made an ideal setting and was very acutely described as the nameless faceless place that it was and was also indicative of the consumer society that tends to dominate these days. There are also some interesting additions at the end of each chapter describing the behaviour of some of the nameless people who frequent Green Oaks.
All of the main characters are very interesting although I don't think that the reader really gets to know them very well. They are described with a sense of detachment which I think is quite clever as it is reflective of their outlooks on their own lives. The characters who feature in this story are the kinds that are a little bit different and don't really fit in. This comes across very well because of the way the story is told and is extremely effective. There is almost a surreal quality to the book, a little reminiscent of the ghosts that might or might not wander around the shopping centre when it is empty!
It is a good book but also quite a sad one as it tends to highlight all that is not so good about living in a modern society whilst interweaving it all with a good old-fashioned mystery.
What was Lost was Catherine O'Flynn's first novel and it seems that she has only just recently published her second. The book is currently available on Amazon for £4.94 (April 2010).
With my last Amazon voucher (thanks as always, Dooyoo) I bought a couple MORE books to add to my to-read box, which I had been eyeing up in Waterstone's. I was going away for a couple of days and unfortunately had a lot of time to kill waiting for people, so I brought this with me and from the first chapter was enthralled.
Kate Meaney is nine years old and fancies herself as a private detective. During the school holidays she spends her days at the local shopping centre where, assisted by her toy monkey Mickey, she closely keeps watch over the shoppers, making notes and hoping to prevent a big bank heist or similar.
Fast forward 20 years and security guard Kurt spots a girl on his CCTV monitor in the middle of a night shift. Seeing her reminds him of Kate, who had disappeared years ago on her way to a school entrance exam.
None of his colleagues see the girl, and so they start to think maybe Kurt's going crazy. Lonelier than ever, he strikes up a friendship with Lisa, manager of the centre's music store and one of Kate's neighbours as a kid.
For reasons I won't reveal as to give away any of the plot, the two become not only determined to find out what happened to Kate, but to examine what else has been lost in their lives and where they've gone wrong.
The story is told both in third person focusing on Kate, Lisa and Kurt, and by reports from a random shopper/someone seemingly unrelated throughout the book. I admit it did get a bit confusing towards the end, but once the pieces started to tie together it was really rewarding. Catherine O'Flynn paints a quirky picture of the characters at Green Oaks and despite the fact the majority of the story is, essentially, about a missing youngster, it remains lighthearted and comical.
Chapters are short which with my short attention span I like, and it was a page-turner. Even though I was in a situation where I had to fill time and therefore was reading to keep my sanity, when I got home I was eager to see how it ended and read the last third in one sitting.
I will be passing this book on to a friend to read who I'm sure will like it as much as I did. It's not so much a mystery because the stories interwine so that it's not really possible to guess, I don't think, every aspect of the plot. I think older children would enjoy this book as well.
For some reason I'm finding it incredibly hard to write about this book. I added the product as I was starting reading it, then when it appeared thought "Oh God, how do I sum up THAT?" because it really is so unusual, AND confusing. I tried my best but realise this might not be one of my finer reviewing moments.
What Was Lost is currently on Amazon.co.uk priced at £5.59, and of course in all good book shops. There is the option on Amazon to read the first chapter of this particular title online to get a feel for it, and I highly recommend doing so.