Book review Tuesday: What Was Lost, by Catherine O’Flynn

Last week I read Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost, which was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2007 (which is especially impressive since it was O’Flynn’s first novel). It’s a quick read but it also packs an emotional punch, and I am still thinking about it days after finishing it.

what was lost

The novel begins in 1984 in the Midlands in England. Ten year-old Kate Meaney has set up her own detective agency, Falcon Investigations. She spends her free time patrolling the local mall, Green Oaks, casing the joint for suspicious individuals and keeping meticulous notes in her detective’s notebook. She is accompanied by Mickey, her toy monkey and partner at Falcon Investigations. Kate, whose mother abandoned her as a baby and whose father recently died, uses her detection activities to escape the realities of her life, including the fact that her grandmother wants to send her away to a boarding school and she has few friends other than Adrian, a twenty-two year old man who works at his father’s sweet shop.

Then Kate disappears.

The narrative skips forward nearly twenty years, to 2003, where we meet two people who work at Green Oaks, the mall where Kate conducted most of her detection. Without giving anything away, it becomes apparent that both of these people — Kurt, a security guard, and Lisa, a manager at a music store in the mall — are in some way connected to Kate Meaney. They learn about their shared connection, almost by accident, after Kurt starts seeing images of Kate appear on the CCTV cameras late at night.

The story is partly the story of Kate and partly the bittersweet love story of Kurt and Lisa. I was intrigued by both aspects of the book, including the central mystery about what happened to Kate. What I loved most, though, was how well O’Flynn captured what it is like to be a child lost in her own world of “detection.” O’Flynn excerpts Kate’s detective journal and absolutely nails the perspective of a curious, imaginative child. Here is a bit I particularly loved:

Thursday, 19 April

Man with the suntan and checked sports jacket in Vanezi’s again. He has new steel-rimmed dark glasses. Think he is American, looks like bad men in Columbo. Suspect he is a hired assassin staking out a subject. Beginning to think this could be the waitress with no neck. He stared at her a lot. Have yet to discover motive for her murder, but will attempt to engage her in casual conversation tomorrow, and if necessary I will warn her, but need more evidence on “Mr. Tan” first.

When leaving he dropped a lighter as he passed my table; think it was an attempt to view my notes. I quickly slid the book under my menu and he disguised his frustration. He is perhaps beginning to realize I am a worthy opponent.

When I was a kid, I used to do similar things with my friends: we’d “spy” on people and often feel sure that we were witnesses to illegal hijinks just waiting to happen. It was so thrilling to feel that we were on the verge of discovering something big; O’Flynn brings the reader right back to that feeling with Kate’s journal.

The character of Kate, in particular, is so lovable and heart-rending, a feeling which is compounded by the utter unfairness of her disappearance. The book is undeniably sad, but at the end of it, I had hope for the surviving characters; it didn’t leave me feeling depressed or deflated, a response to literature which I loathe. There were elements of hope and happiness mixed in with the tragedy.

Recommended for anyone looking to dip a toe into emotionally rich Man-Booker prize literature without diving into a thick literary tome.


Edited to add: After writing this review, I looked online and read a few reader reviews of this book and realized that I failed to mention the role that the shopping center, Green Oaks, plays in this novel. Indeed, the action of all three characters’ stories is centered around the mall and the author sprinkles in some heavy-handed allusions to the dehumanizing corporate power of the Shopping Mall, but for some reason, the descriptions of the mall itself did not resonate with me as powerfully as the glimpses into the inner emotional lives of the characters did. Yes, to some extent, all three characters’ emotional arcs are tied up with the mall itself, but to me, that was probably the least interesting aspect of the book. I just wanted to insert this little addendum lest it seem that I completely missed the whole mall aspect. I didn’t; I just didn’t care about it that much.

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