Catherine O’Flynn is one of four debut novelists on the Booker Prize longlist, and What Was Lost was previously longlisted for the Orange Prize. It’s been widely enjoyed by other book bloggers, and it promised to be an accessible change after the superb exoticism of Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People.
O’Flynn’s story is one of loss and consumerism: in 1984, ten year old Kate Meaney spends a lot of time in recently opened Green Oaks shopping centre, imagining life as a ‘girl detective’ alongside her sidekick, craft-kit cuddly monkey Mickey (“Kate ate the burger and perused the first Beano of the new year, while Mickey kept a steady eye on some suspicious teenagers below”). She goes missing, and we rejoin the story in 2003 when Kurt, a security guard at Green Oaks, and Lisa, a music store manager in the centre, discover a mutual interest in Kate’s disappearance.
What Was Lost made me laugh on page one – no mean feat from a standing start – but it’s often the case that the things which first attract you ultimately repel you. Although the first half of the book is frequently funny, too often the humour takes the form of comic observations which seem better fitted to a stand-up show than a work of fiction, and it doesn’t help that most of the main characters share the same wry take on the world.
Anyone who asked for chocolate limes was a killer, according to Adrian, due to his abhorrence of the sweet and and his belief that no law-abiding person could like such an unnatural combination. ‘They’ve stepped outside the norms of society, Kate. Their moral compass has gone crazy. Anything goes.’ In addition Adrian referred to anyone who bought plain chocolate as ‘one with dark appetites.’
One minor player, Lisa’s colleague Dan, seems to exist as a mouthpiece for the sort of prolonged humorous rant which traditionally ends with the studio audience bursting into applause. Of course Ben Elton is a devil for this sort of thing too, but O’Flynn seems to have more serious aims for her book.
And there is seriousness here which is often well done. O’Flynn captures neatly the joylessness of any place constructed to force pleasure down people’s throats, and her portrayals of parents and children in dysfunction and death are effective. The book is also highly readable, and I found myself racing through it (and not just because of the time pressures of reading the entire Booker longlist…).
But there are less satisfying aspects too. To make the plot come together, O’Flynn needs to create an exaggeratedly unrealistic character (who I won’t name to avoid spoilers), whose status as comic relief sits uneasily with their serious role at the end. I also found myself annoyed by smaller things, like the bizarre decision for every single character, and the narrative voice, in this Birmingham-based novel by an English writer to refer to their mother as “Mom.” (Edit: but see the comment by Ben below.) Every time it happened, I wondered where the American person had appeared from.
For what I thought was a subtler and richer discussion of lost children, I’d recommend Jill Dawson’s Watch Me Disappear (which didn’t get a sniff of the Booker lists!).