Every once in a while a book comes along that takes your breath
away. What Was Lost is such a book. Catherine O'Flynn's stunning first
novel contemplates the loss of innocence and the dullness of modern life. A
simple story about two people's investigation of a young girl's mysterious
disappearance grows into a larger rumination on modernity, maturation, and love
under O'Flynn's deft and empathetic pen. The novel is divided into two main
narratives: Ten-year-old Kate Meaney's life as a detective and Lisa and Kurt's
experiences at Green Oaks shopping mall in 2004, two decades later. The two
narratives mirror each other in theme and action, and the result is an artfully
constructed and interesting whole.
Kate Meaney wants to be a detective. She enlists the help of her friend Mickey, a stuffed monkey, and begins to look for crime in her neighborhood. She is a diligent, respectful, and innocent child who wants to save good people from criminals. She receives little adult supervision and is left to do much as she pleases, which includes sitting in Green Oaks for hours observing her "suspects".
O'Flynn creates a real child in Kate, and it is heart wrenching to think that she is alone in public places with only her monkey and detective notebook for protection. When the narrative shifts to the Lisa/Kurt plot, and it becomes clear that Kate has disappeared, the meaning of the title bears down in full force. Many things are lost when Kate disappears: innocence, childhood, love, and possibility. When the truth about Kate's disappearance is learned, the real pain of what is lost becomes even more acute.
The second half of the plot develops almost exclusively within the confines of the Green Oaks shopping mall, a huge, creepy, soulless shopping center on the edge of one of England's 'new towns' (planned communities developed after WWII). Green Oaks has a haunting, dark history and the labyrinthine tunnels that run behind the public spaces are scary. Gavin, the security guard that works with Kurt, knows too much about Green Oaks and his monstrous fascination with the dark places in the shopping mall is disturbing. The place has a character all its own and the juxtaposition that O'Flynn makes between the empty shops on the high street and the crowded shopping mall cannot be missed. Green Oaks represents what is wrong with modern life.
Although the plot remains fascinating when the narrative shifts to Lisa/Kurt, the best part of the novel is over when the Kate section is finished. Lisa, a shop manager, and Kurt, a security guard, are aimless adults working in Green Oaks. Juxtaposed to Kate's interest and passion for life, they are defeated and discontent. Both of them are haunted by painful experiences and they come together to investigate the mystery behind Kate's disappearance. The first section of their narrative lags, though this might be because the overwhelming desire to find out what happens to Kate makes it difficult to concentrate on much else. Lisa and Kurt are nicely drawn, but they are merely vehicles for solving Kate's mystery. Though the scenes in Lisa's shop, with the smart sketches of irate customers and idiot bosses, are funny and provide a nice counterpoint to the gothic, dark elements of the main narrative, they are ultimately distracting.
This is a beautiful book, and it is a truly remarkable first novel. It has everything necessary for a good read: absorbing characters, artful construction, fascinating plot, mystery elements to keep the pace moving, and thought-provoking themes. This is a novel not to be missed.
This review is from the July 11, 2008 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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