Wednesday, 2 July 2008

What Was Lost - Catherine O'Flynn

What Was Lost is the first book by Catherine O'Flynn and was winner of this year's Costa First Novel Award as well as being long listed for the Booker and Orange prizes. Not bad for an author who was first rejected by 20 publishers and agents...

What Was Lost opens in 1984 with a private detective, the very inquisitive Kate Meaney, and her cuddly monkey Mickey investigating potential "crimes" in and around the new Green Oaks shopping centre. Although very likable, Kate is clearly a very lonely little girl who is using her self-imposed surveillance routine to escape a lack of love, understanding and friendship at home.

Kate's only "real" friends are also misfits. There's Adrian, the graduate son of the local corner shop owner, and a new girl at school, Theresa, who clearly has a very unpleasant home life and doesn't fit in either. The delightful innocence of this section of the book is overshadowed by the knowledge, from the blurb on the back of the book, that a little girl went missing 20 years ago.

The story jumps to 2004 and centres on one of the Green Oaks night security staff, Kurt, and his developing friendship with Lisa who is the a fed up deputy manager of a Your Music branch. Catherine O'Flynn used to be the deputy manager of an unnamed chain music shop and I strongly suspect that the keenly observed stories in this part of the book are toned down. Some of the customer character assassinations and the view that the staff have of management store visits are just too darkly accurate to be entirely fiction.

Gradually, you come to realise that most of the people in the modern section of the book are somehow connected to Kate Meaney and have been affected by her disappearance in one way or another. As the book concludes, the threads are neatly pulled together and you learn what really happened in 1984.

This book is about more than the story of Kate and the lives she touches - it's also about consumerism and its impact on the way we live today. The claustrophobic setting of the Green Oaks shopping centre, with its miles of serivce corridors populated by miserable staff works well. It's an enclosed environment where people routinely go to fill their lives by buying goods that they don't really want, spend time with people that they don't really like and where that they think that they want is dictated by advertising. Some of the end of chapter monologues are very effective at demonstrating this almost hive mentality.

Finishing this funny/sad book left me with a real sense of loss - it's an impressive debut novel and I look forward to reading her next book. I've seen that Catherine O'Flynn is due to appear in the Literary Tent at Latitude Festival in a couple of weeks and fingers crossed she's scheduled for the Saturday as that's when I've got a ticket!

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