Friday, March 26, 2010

"What Was Lost" by Catherine O'Flynn

Every once in a while there's a "happy accident" here at the checkout counter, something that comes across the desk either as a return or as a reserve, something that catches my eye and intrigues me. This is exactly one of those titles; if memory serves correctly, it was in our outside book drop one morning, and after reading the description on the back, I wanted to read it. I just didn't have time right then, so I placed a reserve on my card for around the time I was going to have a week off. Of course, I didn't actually read it on that vacation - too many other books to get thru!

The book opens in 1984 as we follow 10-year-old Kate Meaney as she learns how to follow people, write down observations, and locate clues using the book How to Be a Detective, a gift from her father. She's started Falcon Investigations and her partner is her stuffed monkey, Mickey. Their main beat is the newly opened Green Oaks shopping mall, a huge complex of stores, a place that inspires love and loathing amongst the locals. Kate doesn't have any friends as such, although she does eventually talk to a girl in her class, Teresa Stanton; Kate's work as a detective allows her to see what the others in her class seem to miss. It's a fairly lonely life, although Kate does spend time with Adrian, a 22-year-old man working at his father's sweets shop. Adrian knows all about Kate's undercover work, and even suggested his father hire her when the shop was losing sweets to shoplifting school kids (the young entrepreneur did a thorough investigation and made a few suggestions as to placement of goods, resulting in a "Good girl!" reward). Then, the unthinkable happens - Kate vanishes, never to be seen again. The police investigate, focusing on Adrian, who also disappears.

Fast forward to Green Oaks circa 2003. Adrian's sister, Lisa, works as a assistant manager at Your Music in the Green Oaks mall. She hates her job, hates the people she works with, and hates Green Oaks, but she's being groomed to manager her own store, dates and lives with one of her co-workers, and spends almost all her waking hours at Green Oaks, either working or shopping. One evening she finds herself working later than usual and becomes lost in the maze of corridors and tunnels that run behind the shops. One of the security guards, Kurt, runs across her in his patrol and guides her to the door to the parking lot. While on their way out, Lisa stumbles across a stuffed monkey, one that looks suspiciously like the one Kurt saw a little girl holding on the security monitor after closing time, a little girl who vanished when he looked away from the TV screen. Lisa and Kurt form a bond over their misery of life at Green Oaks, their fascination with the mysterious child, and their hopes of a better life.

It doesn't sound like much, but trust me, it's worth it. There are connections between characters that at first I found overly convenient, but then I couldn't stop thinking about them and how the author had accomplished this feat - it works. The background stories of Lisa and Kurt rang true, two people who had hopes and dreams as children and teenagers, only to become trapped in the reality of adult life, caring for parents and paying mortgages, etc. The title obviously refers to Kate and Adrian, who are literally "lost", but it could also to refer to all the other "lost" things in the book - lost dreams, lost hope, lost opportunities, lost illusions. The ending was sad yet brilliant. What I found interesting was the number of reviewers on Amazon who didn't believe Kate was really a child; they thought she sounded "too adult" and no different than the other characters. I thought Kate was a dead-on description of a very mature child, one that prefers to spend time in her own company doing her own thing, rather than try to fit in with the other kids. She prefers talking to older people rather than her peers, and I totally understood that, being much the same myself as a child.

This is a debut novel by O'Flynn, and I'm happy to report that she has another book out this summer. "The News Where You Are" will be released July 6th and I've already got it on my wish list. I have high hopes for this author and look forward to her next book!

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