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Friday, January 9, 2009

What Was Lost, by Catherine O'Flynn (trade, $14)

This remarkable first book by British author O'Flynn has been short- and long-listed for several prestigious prizes. While I want you to read it, it's extremely hard to describe the plot without giving so much away. Each turn of the page brings a revelation or twist, each character is an essential element to the resolution.

So that's what I'll do. Rather than talk about the plot, I'll tell you about the main characters.

Central to the story is Kate Meany, a very bright ten-year-old. At this young and tender age Kate finds she doesn't fit in anywhere. Her best companion is a stuffed monkey, and her passion is to be a junior detective. Following the instructions of a how-to book, Kate searches for a crime to prevent or solve. Although Kate is precocious, the author doesn't swarm us with cutesy, precious detail. Kate is simply Kate, who is, in the end, a ten-year-old child.

Kate's best human friend is Adrian, the 22-year-old son of the nearby candy store owner. He, too, finds it hard to find his place in the world, so these two sensitive souls find each other and bond over the incomprehensibility of the world.

Kate finally finds a same-age companion in the new kid at school, a misfit named Teresa. If there is a way to get into trouble, Teresa will find it. Bright, uncontrollable and not well-liked, Teresa finds a sympathetic ear in Kate.

This may sound like the makings of a children's book, but it's not. Most of it is a grown-up story about grown-ups. For instance …

Lisa. Lisa is Adrian's sister. We meet her as an adult working in a mall music store. She once had aspirations that didn't involve the day-to-day drudgery of managing a corporation drone-clone. Step-by-unaware-step she finds herself marching towards respectability and increasing monotony.

In the same mall is Kurt, a security guard. The Green Oaks shopping mall was once the shining star in the mall firmament. Built on the former grounds of industries that collapsed in an economic downturn, the mall has gradually expanded to become a megalithic entity that now swamps the once small community and its small community nature. Kurt mostly patrols the after-hours mall, walking empty and ghostly corridors. He, too, has wandered off from his aspirations and, by inattention, has found himself years later still a security guard at the mall.

Every main character carries a piece of the puzzle, but it is not until Kurt and Lisa meet that the story tumbles into place.

O'Flynn is a master of drawing a story out slowly and elegantly. Do yourself a favor: Don't read the summary on the back cover -- just start right in reading.


  1. I found this book weak, dreary, poor and a lightweight.

  2. It's true that this book is not a thriller, the genre you seem to like best. Rather, I found satisfaction in knowing that the puzzle of what happened to Kate was finally solved. In my opinion, a mystery doesn't need to have a fair-play solution to be rewarding.