Catherine O’Flynn’s debut novel, What Was Lost, is as labyrinthine as the tunnels under the Green Oaks Shopping Centre. Ten year old Kate Meany is an amateur detective, raised (until his sudden death) by an older, single father. In the novel’s opening third, we travel with Kate and her stuffed monkey, Mickey, as they conduct stakeouts, deliberate over office stationary for Kate’s fledgling detective agency, and pal around with Adrian, the 22 year old son of the man who runs the store next to Kate’s house.
Flash forward almost 20 years and meet Kurt, a security guard at Green Oaks and Lisa, a manager at ‘Your Music’ a big-box music store in the same mall (and not incidentally, Adrian’s younger sister). One night, while sleepily watching the security moniter, Kurt sees Kate. It’s not possible: Kate disappeared the year she was ten and was never found. Adrian, suspected of wrong-doing, but never charged, disappeared and made no contact with his family except for a mixed tape he sent to Lisa every year on her birthday.
From these tangled threads, O’Flynn weaves an exceptionally good story about missed opportunities, luck, family and secrets. She even throws in a slightly gloomy (but fairly funny) picture of what it’s like to work in retail.
O’Flynn’s real strength is in her characters. Kate Meany is a wholly believable and totally enchanting little girl. Lisa and Kurt are flawed and likable. O’Flynn manages to tell us everything we need to know about a character with a line or two – whole back stories come to life with a few carefully chosen words. Even minor characters spring to glorious life and create a picture of small town-life which is ultimately eroded by progress aka big impersonal malls.
The story had an extra layer of meaning for me because it took place in the West Midlands of England and I once lived there. I am pretty sure that Green Oaks is actually Merry Hill, a huge shopping centre on the outskirts of Birmingham.
If I have one niggle about the book, it comes at the end. I didn’t like part 42- it felt extraneous to me, like an unnecessary bow on a beautifully wrapped present. Had O’Flynn quit at the end of part 41, I think this little gem of a novel would have been damn near perfect.