Thursday, 1 May 2008

What Was Lost

OK, so What Was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn was last night’s book group offering. I don’t generally read ‘prize’ books as I’m not a literary book lover on the whole but that’s book groups for you, they put gems in your way that you’d haver stepped over yourself.

So, what was lost? As well as a little girl, innocence is lost, illusions are lost, brothers are lost and years of life are lost to monotonous, joyless, dead-end jobs. All of which makes it sound depressing. And some of it is depressing, but there are also laugh-out-loud moments, particularly when we are seeing life through the viewpoint of ten-year-old Kate, intrepid private detective, accompanied by her faithful monkey companion and her ‘how to be a detective’ book.
Kate goes to the school from hell, populated by wonderful child characters and Mrs Finnegan, the kind of teacher we all hope never to encounter, even at one remove. She can’t stand children and seeks only to subjugate.

The Green Oaks shopping centre – both the setting and a character in the book in its own right - is a bit like Mrs Finnegan. If there is a presiding spirit of Green Oaks (such an ironic name for a sprawling city of concrete) it is malign, it does not view the people who flock through its doors benevolently, it sucks them in and drives them to despair. Even the glue-sniffers on the roof who are the least affected by what goes on inside are eventually undone by its malignant despair.

We are given occasional views into the inner worlds of those who wander around Green Oaks, little italicised slices of the lives of Sunday browsers buying what they don’t need, security guards wondering what it’s all about and mystery shoppers who are close to psychotic breakdown. These vignettes bring to mind Thoreau’s famous line about most men living lives of quiet desperation.

But the most mind-numbing and aspiration-sapping effects of Green Oaks are felt by those who work there. Everyone except Gavin, the very peculiar security guard who makes videos of the service tunnels, wants to leave and isn’t sure why they haven’t left already. It becomes one of the reader’s greatest wishes, whilst reading the book, that some, at least, will escape.

So if it’s so bleak, what was there to enjoy?
Catherine O’Flynn is a wonderful delineator of character – in a few well-chosen sentneces people are laid bare before the reader, their souls dissected, their past lives served up in a few well-chosen details. She is not afraid of grotesques and Green Oaks is full of them, but her best characters are the everyday ones, the people we could imagine being ourselves.

But best of all is Kate, little Kate Meaney with her dedication to her craft [‘Tuedsay 24th April. Nothing to report today. Man seen eating orange peel from brown paper bag. Followed him for 40 minutes but no further deviance observed. Spent two hours outside banks – no one looked wrong’] her monkey, Mickey [she’s the sort of ‘tell it like you see it’ child who really would have called him that] and her friendships with Adrian, indolent grown up son of the newsagent and Theresa, her class’s most deviant and cleverest member.

Don’t read this book if you’re feeling low. It is a critique of consumerism which will make any attempt to shop your way out of a blue mood seem not only futile but doomed. Ditto reading your way to happiness. Read it if you want characters so real you feel you have to go and ask them how they felt about being written about in this book and what they thought about what happened to young Kate Meaney.


Tim Stretton said...

This sounds fantastic, Alis - sounds to me a bit like "Three Things About Me" crossed with "The Curious Incident of the Dog etc"

Your standing as a tipster is at a high-water mark after "Year of Wonders" so I'll be sure to track this down!

KAREN said...

Great review - I definitely want to read it now! In fact it might have to go straight to the top of my list.