Catherine O’Flynn: What Was Lost
Having already been longlisted for one award this year, Catherine O’Flynn’s debut, What Was Lost, has now found its way onto that of the Man Booker, something that will no doubt please her publisher, Tindal Street, now given their second sniff of the prize after Claire Morrall’s shortlisted Astonishing Splashes Of Colour back in 2003. And as fiction goes, it’s a highly readable story focusing on consumerism and disillusionment using a shopping mall as its milieu, but it doesn’t have the literary aura that the other novels longlisted sport.
The novel begins in 1984 and follows the life of ten year old Kate Meaney. She’s a bit of loner and, thanks to her elderly father, a tad obsessed with being a private detective. Indeed, she imagines her own agency, Falcon Investigations, its only employees being Kate and her toy monkey, Mickey. They spend their days hanging around Green Oaks mall, logging suspicious behaviour in Kate’s notebook.
Wednesday 25th April
Middle-aged man in tatty coat lost something in one of the bins. Saw him put his arm in and pull stuff out. Thought security guards were coming to help him, but instead they just led him off the premises. Noticed he had got confused and put old hamburger that someone had thrown away in his pocket.
Decided against continuing search myself.
Then, just as soon as the novel is getting into its stride, O’Flynn fasts forwards us to 2003 and leaves us in the company of mall security guard, Kurt and record story duty manager, Lisa. Kurt is having trouble sleeping and is having visions recalling 1984 when Kate Meaney vanished without trace. And Lisa, bored with her job – and life, really – is also haunted by the past – her brother, who she hasn’t seen in twenty years, was prime suspect in the Meaney case. Thus, with these two connections to the missing girl, these two characters are conveniently brought together and what was lost, I’m afraid, was my interest.
It’s probably not a coincidence that the novel begins in 1984. The shopping mall is an interesting microcosm where security cameras prod into everyone’s lives, monitoring their every move. It’s sad, therefore, that O’Flynn doesn’t really capitalise on this and instead gives us random snapshots – at the end of chapters! – of lives spent in the humdrum of such a place: mystery shoppers, anti-social youths, the mall DJ, and the guy dragged from one store to the next, his boredom invisible to his shopaholic partner.
What Was Lost does have its interesting moments as it explores the idea of a shopping mall from all angles. There’s the low paid nature of jobs, the customer experience, the ongoing development, and glimpses behind the scenes that we don’t ordinarily see. In the opening 1984 section there’s the comi-tragic butcher whose business is all but destroyed by the mall yet he soldiers on, a single case of how such buildings are having a detrimental effect on the high street.
Mr Watkin was an old man, Kate estimated probably seventy-eight. He was a nice man with a nice wife, but very few people bought their meat from him any more. Kate thought this possibly had something todo with the way Mr Watkin stood in his shop window swatting flies against the sides of meat with a large palette knife. It was also perhaps a self-perpetuating situation, in that the fewer customers Mr Watkin had, the less meat he stocked, and the less meat he had, the less he looked like a butcher, and the more he looked like a crazy old man who collected and displayed bits of flesh in his front window.
While I enjoyed What Was Lost‘s 1984 storyline, I found it hard to warm to the 2003 section. I had bought into Kate Meaney’s story knowing, from the blurb, that it wouldn’t last. Having her cruelly whipped away almost seventy pages in, ensured that, like Lisa and Kurt, I would feel her loss, as was no doubt O’Flynn’s intent. Sadly the lives of Lisa and Kurt weren’t all that interesting and their entwined destiny was no doubt written in the synopsis, if not the stars.
That What Was Lost has made the Booker longlist surprises me. Sure, it’s accessible, but there doesn’t seem to be much style to O’Flynn’s prose or depth to the novel. When it comes down to it, all it seems to say are shopping malls are bleak places, as if we didn’t already know that. Even the storyline of a missing child, strong at first as its effects are explored, are stripped of their power when, in a rushed attempt to tie up the tale, we find out that her delusion of being a private detective went one step too far and curiosity killed our Kate.
September 3, 2007