Catherine O’Flynn – What Was Lost


Catherine O’ Flynn’s much acclaimed debut novel probably has one of the most fascinating opening chapters I’ve ever read, which revolves around Kate Meaney, a ten year old aspiring detective. Following Kate, and her ‘partner’ Mickey (a soft toy),  through her ‘stakeouts’ as she looks for ‘suspicious’ people, simultaneously trying to determine their possible motives, her friendship with Adrian, the neighbor’s twenty-two year old son, her friends at school, and her life with her dad, the book comes across as an innocent feel-good book.

Anyone who asked for a chocolate lime was a killer, according to Adrian, due to his abhorrence of the sweet and his belief that no law-abiding person could like such an unnatural combination.

Things have a habit of going disarray, though, and when Kate’s father dies in suspicious circumstances, her maternal grandmother becomes Kate’s official guardian. She thinks it would do Kate a world of good to go to boarding school and be around kids her own age. Kate has other ideas, although she does promise her grandmother that she’ll do the entrance exam, and give it her best shot. Adrian drops her off to the school for the exam, and Kate’s never seen after that. When they look through the entrance exam papers, they can’t find Kate’s.

Cut twenty years later to Green Oaks mall, a popular stakeout location for Kate, and the reader is introduced to the two ‘actual’ protagonists of the book: Lisa, a duty manager at ‘Your Music’, and Kurt, a security guard, who spends most of his time observing the CCTV videos. One night, a long time ago, he had seen a young girl with a monkey on the screen, but when he attempted to find her, he failed. When he meets Lisa, and sees that she’s holding the same monkey, the two somehow find themselves developing a kind-of relationship, and together try to find the ‘lost girl’ – a girl who has affected both their lives, although they don’t know it yet!

There seems to be a fair bit of indirect social commentary, with the author taking pains to explain how things work in a big mall, where the employees are always under great stress and pressure due to unreasonable customers, who insist it’s illegal to charge non-Sale prices once the sale is over. There’s also added stress when they keep expecting an inspection that keeps everyone on their toes – more often than not, these inspection-alerts turn out to be false alarms. It also gives the reader a quick peek into how “new developments” like the mall ends up influencing the lives of so many people, leaving them jobless, or having to find an alternate career which isn’t necessarily what they want to do.

While I loved the opening section of the book, I wasn’t quite impressed with the way the book turned out. The narration itself seems to be in a passive voice, which makes the book slightly less exciting, and despite the fact that the characters are echoing their thoughts, it’s done in third person, and not in quotes, making it slightly bizarre. Call it a writer’s license, if you like.

But every night after another shitty day at work she was filled with an urge that would not be denied to go to the orange back room and get lost in a blur of words and faces and alcohol. The room where everything was so fucking hilarious, and where time whipped by at ten times its normal awful speed.

The switchover from present-day to twenty years later (or twenty years earlier to today, depending on how you look at it) was sudden, and I was left baffled for a couple of minutes trying to figure out where the story had turned a corner, and which direction it was accelerating towards.

The characters aren’t really built up and seem fairly two-dimensional. Kate and Adrian, in my opinion, are the only characters that seemed to have another dimension (and their roles lasted only seventy-odd pages!). It might have something to do with the other characters being caught up in the monotony of their daily lives while dealing with the past tragedies in a mechanical manner, which I can relate to – Since I’ve started working, I feel like my life’s fairly robotic, and I just go about doing things without really thinking about them.

The mystery of Kate going missing does get solved (no surprises there), but the ending was unimpressive, and left me feeling like there was much to be desired.

Rating: 3

5 Responses to “Catherine O’Flynn – What Was Lost”

  1. I agree with your review.

    Kate’s section was amazing – one of the best pieces of writing from a child’s perspective I have ever seen, but as you say it then went downhill very sharply. The second half of the book was disappointing. It was such a shame as I was hoping it would become a favourite – so many people rave about it.

    I’ll still be on the look out for her next book. Hopefully she’ll capture Kate’s magic throughout the whole of her next book.

    • That’s the thing that really disappointed me – it was set up to be such a great book, with rave reviews, and so many awards and nominations. Makes me half wonder if the people who judge these awards only read the first fifty, and last ten pages of the book!

      Here’s hoping for more Kate-and-Mickey-magic in the next one!

  2. This was one of those books I just could not seem to get into.

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