Monday, 7 May 2012

Review: What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn

I had an odd reason for reading this novel. Somebody told me my novel reminded them of What Is Lost, as both are set in shopping centres. There are other striking similarities in some of the small details, but overall they are two very different books. I looked forward to What Is Lost and really wanted to enjoy it. It's in the kind of setting and with the kind of characters, themes, and storylines that appeal to me. The strengths of the writing showed at times when the story zoomed in with a clear focus on the individual characters and brought their experiences and thoughts to life. For me there were also some problems. The long opening third all telling the story of the child Kate Meaney trying to be a private detective around her depressing urban area and the local shopping centre would have failed to hold my attention if I hadn't read on the blurb that she was going to vanish. I would have liked it more if it had started with her and her father, as it's a very interesting lone parent depiction. More interaction with adults could have varied the focus on the child-like story in a way that would have held my interest more. It also felt much more old-fashioned than the dates suggest. In the school there are 'stationery monitors' and a general atmosphere that felt pre-1960s, rather than mid-1980s. The description of the shopping centre in 1984 with 'prehistoric supermarkets' and also tatty shops near the entrances from the bus stops doesn't tie in with my memories. It was always expensive for shops to be in these places and the shops near the main entrances were in the prime positions. The same big supermarket chains were in them then as now. The middle section moves forwards 20 years and to two new characters - the security guard Kurt and also Lisa, who works in a music shop. The middle section is the hardest part of a novel, and this is a debut - it does seem to get a bit lost at this point. There are too many mundane details that I think a good editor should have helped the author with. The story of the characters is also often narrated as backstory, or as the things they 'usually do' each day. Each time the author zoomed in and brought a scene to life this completely changed and really worked. For example, the moment the security guard feels somebody is walking behind him watching him in the isolatd service corridors. The book would have been strengthened by increasing the passages with this kind of writing. The author really knows about shopping centres as she worked in a music shop, but unfortunately the details about Lisa's working life in Your Music are too long and mundane. So the book could have been strengthened by cutting some of this detail, although some of it is needed in the resolution for this character. The long opening section also gets us involved with Kate Meaney, so it feels strange that her disappearance becomes such a small part of the rest of the book. It would have been good to have the focus brought back to Kate more often. All of the characters have reasons to be remembering her, and there is one truly spooky moment. More of those would have been great, in place of the more everyday comments. I liked the experimental nature of the book and the way the 'voices' of the people in the shopping centre pop up in italics here and there. Again, some of them are too mundane, but some are excellent. It would have been nice if the mundane ones had been replaced by others. It would also have been good, for me anyway, if some of the characters had not been depressed. Surely there would be some joy experienced by somebody? I can see that some feel the resolution didn't work. I think it does work in ways and not in others. The plot depends too much on coincidence - all the main characters have some connection to Kate Meaney, and then by chance they also find the clues and meet up with each other. They also forget things about her, like the fact she carried the monkey, which I think would stick in the mind if a lost friend or girl you have seen starts coming back into your memory when clues appear. Apart from Kate Meaney, there is a death that links two of the main characters and it happens in the shopping centre with one of the characters happening to be the person to make the discovery. I can't say more without spoilers, but there are so many coincidences needed to make the plot work that either it's a mistake, or it's a deliberate ploy to show it's fiction and not meant to be realistic. Again the scenes in 2004 felt old-fashioned - nobody uses the internet or mobile phones. Everybody uses a landline, and uses the post to stay in contact anonymously, when the internet could be used. Lisa from the music shop is using a Walkman. Each of the time periods seems about 20 years before the times given on the chapters. Dialogue was a bit of a problem, and even the final statement about what happened to Kate seems to be in a similar voice to many of the other characters. The lack of variety in states of mind, with little positive apart from the undying enthusiasm of Kate, is echoed in similar tones of voice and attitudes. Working class people are described as 'inbred' three times by different people (starting with Kate, which gives an idea that her voice often isn't that of a child), boys who work in the storeroom are described as lanky-haired and all called Matt or Kieron. I thought this might be ok as perhaps the narrative voice was also that of someone with a similar council estate background, but it seems to get more and more linked to Lisa's voice, and she describes herself as middle-class at one point. So an element of snobbery is one of the less acceptable flavours left by the novel. At another point one of the security guards is helped to learn how to read and takes up the Daily Mail and Jilly Cooper novels, which could be quite funny, but a point is made that the guard who has taught him feels he has 'created a monster'. We are all supposed to share the same views in order to agree with the narrator, who steps in at points like this, not letting the characters have their own opinions, or not letting the readers interpret for themselves. This can make the characters seem a bit too similar. I did like the stories of the characters lives, and would have liked a bit more about Theresa at the start. It would have been nice to feel more engaged with her and also with Kate. It was hard to have an emotional response to any of the characters and letting them come to life would have helped that, coupled with the removal of the more mundane passages. Having said that, I did really like what was being attempted and have a feeling I'll like Catherine O'Flynn's follow-on novels more. I must also be wrong to some extent as the book has won awards - something I didn't realise until I was halfway through it. I wonder if knowing would have changed my response.


  1. I really love it when I get to read an honest review. I think that it was good you didn't know about the awards...whether we like it or not I feel that sometimes things like that can have an influence. Even if it is detrimental.

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