16 September 2011

Review 38: What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn

What Was Lost is a strange book. It's not very lengthy, it has characters that range from quirky to unappealing and you are never quite sure where Catherine O'Flynn is taking you next. These could very easily be criticisms of a lesser book but in O'Flynns capable hands they are most definitely positives. What Was Lost begins in the 1980s with the story of 10 year old Kate Meaney who lives with her grandmother and spends her time conducting private investigations around the local shopping centre. The book then abruptly turns to the story of Lisa and Kurt, 20 years later as they work in the same shopping centre as a music store assistant manager and security guard respectively as we find out that Kate disappeared and has never been heard from since.

The book is totally engrossing, I came to the last ten pages or so as my train pulled into Euston station and I ended up standing on the platform having to finish the book before I could put it away and continue with life. It is unusual in its structure, its character and its story and wonderful because of that. I also enjoyed that it was set in Birmingham, as that is where I currently live, as whilst the shopping centre is fictional it is easy to imagine what O'Flynn is describing and Kate's home is also familiar - I found myself picturing a row of houses with a newsagents on that I drive past every day on the way to work.
Kate is a hugely appealing character. You could probably compare her to many other child protagonist novels such as The Curious Incident of the Dog at nightime - she's quirky, not quite part of normal society and has complicated relationships despite her young age. We hear the first part of the story from Kate's perspective and her stream of consciousness veers between charming and heartbreaking as you fall for this little girl who has the odds stacked against her and yet has such as positive outlook and finds some sort of happiness in her private investigations with her stuffed monkey.

Kate doesn't fit in with her peers at school and is horrified to be sat next to the new girl who has usurped the title of naughiest person in the class. She befriends Adrian, the son of the owner of the newsagents next door to where she lives who is 22 and doesn't know what to do with his life. Lisa is Adrian's sister and it is partly through Lisa's eyes that we see the second half of the novel and find out that when Kate disappeared Adrian was blamed for her death and then disappeared himself.

Lisa is slowly giving up on life as her job and relationship kill any ambitions she once had. Kurt is a security guard at the same shopping centre and they meet and decide to try and find out more about what happened to Kate and Adrian.

The second half of the novel is more of an out and out crime/mystery novel as we try to find out alongside Kurt and Lisa what happened to Kate but O'Flynn doesn't use your stereotypical mystery novel language and it is all framed within Lisa and Kurt's apathy for their life and jobs. The mundane surrounds the mystery of Kate.

What Was Lost is by turns sad, charming, exciting and creepy and O'Flynn manages to create realistic, flawed characters who you nonetheless root for. It has moments of real sadness as well as moments of loveliness. It is at the same time fast paced and contemplative and I look forward to reading other novels by Catherine O'Flynn.

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