Monday, 13 June 2016

What Was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn

 
published 2011


 
What was lost 3



 
What was Lost 4Lisa 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 What was Lost 2baseball 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.’
 
What was Lost 1



commentary: I’ve been resisting this book for some years, because it seemed to be about a missing child and a soulless shopping mall, and thus sounded like something to avoid.

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.
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.
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?

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.



















26 comments:

  1. Another pass - slim pickings of late, which in hindsight probably isn't a bad thing

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    1. I'm not insisting, but actually you might even like this one...

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  2. Thank you for the kind mention, Moira. And I can't tell you how delighted I am you enjoyed this as much as you did. Isn't it a wonderful book?! I think you're spot on, too, about the relationships that are explored in the book. They're done brilliantly, I think. I won't keep gushing, but I truly did love the novel, and your post on it is excellent.

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    1. I am SO glad I read it, and regret having missed it till now. It is a standout book, one I will remember for a long time.

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  3. I absolutely loved this book. I find shopping malls strangely fascinating. I really liked how the book captured the sense of theatre of a shopping centre - the world that the shoppers see and then the behind the scenes with the security guards and the hidden corridors. This post makes me want to read it again, I'll have to try another of her books.
    https://huntingforheroines.wordpress.com

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    1. I could say, why have you never insisted I read it! That's a great description of what makes it so good, and yes, I think about it all the time, and I'm sure will make me look at malls differently.

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    2. ummm...pretty sure I did insist you read it! (Or at least I strongly recommended it to you)

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    3. You are right and I am wrong: I have only myself to blame for not listening to you before...

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  4. So glad you loved it, Moira. A brilliant setting, and yes, you (and the characters in the book) are not the only ones who like pretending and spying. It is pretty much de rigeur for writers.

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    1. Thanks to you for the reco. Such a good one. And how nice to think of us all going round spying...

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  5. Moira, I'm probably being simplistic but this delightful book sounds like YA caught in a mystery-thriller.

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    1. Elements of each Prashant! But transcends all and is just a marvellous book.

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  6. I would also recommend O'Flynn's other books, Mr. Lynch's Holiday and The News Where You Are. The three books are very different but they all share O'Flynn's fine writing, her consistently touching and sympathetic characters, and her ability to make the settings of the books an essential part of the story.

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    1. Thanks Steve - I most certainly intend to read more by her.

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  7. I am always a bit scared to read other people's reviews of this book in case they don't like it. This is one of my favourite books ever (recommended to me via my much missed blogging friend Maxine from Petrona)and although I am usually mild-mannered when it comes to disagreements of taste I find with the books I adore I struggle when I come across someone who doesn't like the book - so glad we can still be reading friends then :)

    At the outset I thought I loved this book simply because I shared something with Kate - we both had detective agencies as children (mine was with my best friend) - but I loved all the sections of the novel equally and all its characters - it's 5 years since I first read it and I still regularly recommend it to anyone who will listen.

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    1. Phew, so glad we can stay reading buddies! I may have read a reco from you in the past - I'm sure other people told me to read it, but I didn't listen...
      Such a wonderful book, and now I will be one of the people recommending it.

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  8. O.k. I'm sold on the book.

    Now. What the heck are baseball boots and a donkey jacket??? :-)

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    1. Excellent question! You are in the US, right? Donkey jacket is a dark, heavy wool jacket, traditionally worn by workingmen, perhaps something like a peacoat? Baseball boots are what we used to call athletic shoes like Converse. They are both quite old-fashioned terms now. There was once a wholly made up scandal in the UK when the leader of one of the political parties was alleged (incorrectly) to have worn a donkey jacket to a War Remembrance service: it would have been considered disrespectful.

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    2. Yes, I'm in California. And thanks for the satisfying my curiosity. I guess since they're old-fashioned terms that explains why they were new to me. From your description, I'd probably call them a peacoat and sneakers. Your scandal was a true one for us when Dick Cheney (shudder) wore a casual parka to a service at one of the concentration camps when he was veep. Such a .... well, I won't pollute your blog with what I want to say.

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    3. Yes, peacoat and sneakers does sound right. And how funny about the Cheney story...

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    4. I finally got hold of a copy and read it. So glad I did! Interestingly, in the edition I read the "donkey jacket" was called a pea coat, although the baseball boots were still called baseball boots. Wonder if someone had edited it for the American audience and revised the one term and not the other.

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    5. Great that you liked it! How funny about the changes - I think that happens quite often, but I do find it annoying. Consistency!

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  9. I have this book, this pushes me closer to reading it. Although I did not read your post much beyond the excerpt because this is the kind of book I want to come to know as little as possible. I had some of the same reservations you did but clearly it must be worth the effort. Later in the year I guess, after my 20 books of Summer.

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    1. Yes, do give it a go Tracy, I will be interested to hear your views...

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  10. I read this book years ago and also loved it. Great minds and all that.

    I must read more of O'Flynn's books.

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    1. Absolutely Kathy, I am completely unsurprised that you liked it too. I'm just annoyed with myself that I didn't listen to everyone. And yes, I too want to read more by her.

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