Wednesday, August 22, 2007

what was lost, by catherine o'flynn

'What Was Lost', the debut novel by Catherine O'Flynn, is an unusual, slightly spooky book which threw me off the scent several times, as befitting a book with a detective as one of its central protagonists. It's a confident, chatty novel about, well, about many things – but chiefly about the isolation that comes from being insecure and unrooted in contemporary society.

The novel starts with a witty, sympathetically rendered tale about a ten-year-old orphan, Kate, who, unable to interact with her peers, obsesses over a book which her late father gave her, entitled 'How To Be A Detective'. Her only friend is Mickey, who is, alas, a stuffed toy monkey (and rather sombre company), until she befriends Adrian, 22 and just back from University.

He is an unlikely friend, but together they pore over the customers at the local newsagent, singling out potential serial killers or bank robbers, separating the genuinely criminal from the adulterous. But the local high street is full of familiar faces and Kate, tiring of its potential for drama, takes her surveillance operation to the nearby Green Oaks, the first of the large 1980s shopping centres. It is there, in 1984, that she disappears.

Having created an enjoyable and easy comedy of this simple scenario, O'Flynn bravely shifts emphasis, introducing us to Lisa, an employee in Green Oaks' biggest record shop, and Kurt, a security guard. It is 2003, but not much in the centre has changed – the same unforgiving strip lights, the deadening monotony of commerce. And still not much happens, until Kurt observes, in the early hours of the morning, a girl standing, motionless in the half-light outside a bank, clutching a note book and a stuffed monkey. His sighting sets in motion a series of events which bring him and Lisa together, while aspects of their worlds remould and change around them. For both, painful memories need exploring, and losses shared.

O'Flynn's novel, unsettling though it is, is quite easily the most accessible and readable title on the Booker longlist and, particularly as it comes not just from a first time author but also an independent publisher – Tindal Street Press – it is a surprising inclusion. It has moments of shining wit and intricate plotting which suggests it is most deserving of its place. It is a mystery of shifting sands set in the hard concrete of a shopping centre, where service tunnels lead to disarming dead ends and bricked up corridors to the past. But elsewhere O'Flynn's determination to skewer consumerism sometimes leads to heavy handed humour and rather blunt, unsubtle prose: she is far better on memory and loss than she is on satire, and her desire to write funny sentences occasionally undermines the bittersweet undercurrent of her story.

Nevertheless, she has written a novel that is both challenging and accessible, thoughtful and fun. Once picked up it is hard to put down. Perhaps in a field of heavy, portentous tomes, the booker judges appreciated a fast, tense and vibrant read. It is very hard to begrudge them – or the author – that.

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