Lisa had been standing outside her dad’s sweet shop, bored of waiting for him. As she waited, she became aware of someone standing a little further along the road in another shop doorway, peeping out. Lisa leaned forward to get a better look and as she did so the figure pulled back. This sequence was repeated a few times until Lisa gave in and walked along to investigate. She found a little girl in baseball boots and a donkey jacket, standing with a notebook. When the girl saw Lisa she jumped and tried to put the notebook away. ‘What you doing?’ said Lisa. ‘Nothing,’ Kate replied. ‘You’re doing something. Are you spying on me? Are you drawing me? Cos if you are you have to give it to me cos I’m the sole owner of my image and you have no right to its reproduction and if you try and do that I can sue you for defamation and plagiarism and . . . copyright.’
But people whose views I respect convinced me to give it a go – particularly blogfriends Chrissie Poulson and Margot Kinberg – and I am grateful to them for persuading me: I loved the book, which is clever, funny and heartfelt, and has something nuanced to say about modern life.
The first section, set in 1984, is about a 10 year old girl, Kate, who has a lonely homelife and spends her time pretending to be a private detective – she watches what goes on, follows people, makes notes in her notebook. Her favourite location is an enormous shopping mall, Green Oaks, a bus-ride away.
A third of the way through, the book jumps to 2003: Kate just disappeared one day, and has been missing for nearly 20 years, the mystery completely unresolved and largely (but not quite) forgotten. Now we follow a Lisa, a shop worker, and Kurt, a security guard, at the mall. One day Kurt sees a mysterious image on his CCTV – is it a child? What can she be doing?
This sounds like proper thriller stuff, and in one way it is, but the mesmerizing enthralling qualities of the book come from the people’s lives, not from the plot elements, which resurface from time to time and in the end sort themselves out in a reasonably satisfying way.
I loved following the lives of Lisa and Kurt: they were real and touching and funny and wholly convincing. There was sadness and hope in the story. I loved the picture of the mall and of the working lives within. This is Kurt:
On Christmas Day he’d seen the usual small angry crowd banging on the glass doors demanding admission. He watched them on the monitor and thought how like zombies they were. The undead demanding refunds and exchanges.I loved that Lisa too liked spying and pretending:
….inside her bag…she carried something clandestine: a small timed device, a secret message, an illicit package – it didn’t matter what. In her head various genres had been mixed up to create some incoherent spy/ terrorist/ resistance-fighter fantasy – it changed from day to day, but always with the hidden security guards cast as the Nazis.Reflecting Kate’s activities 20 years before. Does everybody like pretending and spying, playing games on boring journeys? Or is it just Lisa and Kate, Harriet the Spy, and me?
She imagined how convincing and natural a portrayal of an early-morning shift manager she was delivering for the cameras. She looked every inch the downtrodden drudge. Who would suspect such a miserable creature? Yes, she had chosen the shabby trainers well.
There is lovely writing in the book, and some great perceptions- this is a young woman trying to comfort her father:
…when you’re fourteen you think you can change things. You think you can say “Don’t feel like that” and it will work. I felt so sad for him. I just wanted to tell him that it didn’t matter.The sidelines on the mall are fascinating and only-too-convincing – there are interspersed sections from various others, of which my favourite was the angry mystery shopper, and also the sad story of the workers who really wanted to help the public but got nowhere
‘The customer said ‘Not such a “superstore” then, are you?’ Can you believe this, Lisa? Was he sent from hell?’My only question on the book is that the earlier part seems to be set not in 1984 but in some even earlier time – Spirograph and Althea and Donna? Late 70s? But that is just a small comment…
This was a marvellous book, and I’m looking forward to reading more by Catherine O'Flynn.
Above there is a still from the film Harriet the Spy, along with the cover of the book (for anyone who doesn't know it - it's a magical children's story by Louise Fitzhugh from 1964); and a picture from a fashion magazine of 1985; and a photo of the Merry Hill shopping centre in the West Midlands.