:: Article

What Was Lost

By Pete Carvill.


Catherine O’Flynn, What Was Lost, Tindal Street Press, 2008

The story of the latter half of the UK will be the tale of how consumerism rapidly replaced Christianity as Britain’s dominant religion. Increased car ownership, the penetration of mass marketing into all the facets of everyday life, the breakdown of community and a lifestyle promoted by culture that emphasises possession as the route to spiritual fulfilment along with the basic human desire of greed have led, largely, to the death of the small, independent retailer. Whereas outlet stores were once non-existent and supermarkets held only a negligible proportion of the market, within the last thirty or so years all this has shifted to the situation we have today – dead city centres, Tescos and Asdas dominating every town and shopping basket.

Into this is Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost, marketed and blurbed as a mystery story but what is actually a sweet love story about two people connecting, a pair of souls not discovering new feelings but waking from the numbness of their everyday lives.

The inciting incident for the romance is the disappearance of Kate Meany two decades before. Kate was an orphan, raised by her grandmother, who cut herself off from other children, spending her days ‘investigating’ the residents of the fictional Green Oaks retail park on the outskirts of Birmingham. The beginning sixty pages or so of ‘What Was Lost’ is related from Kate’s point of view. At page sixty-one, Kate disappears, never to be seen again, becoming the mystery at the centre of the novel.

Twenty years on, there are two people distinctly affected by both Kate Meany and Green Oaks. Kurt is a security guard at the shopping centre, now entering his thirteenth year in the same position. Lisa is the assistant manager of Your Music, a HMV/Zavvi-alike in Green Oaks. Kurt is convinced he’s seen a little girl on the centre’s CCTV, wandering around the corridors at night. Lisa, trying to make sense of her own life, is the sister of Adrian, who was suspected of killing Kate Meany and then later disappeared.

While Lisa struggles to conceive of a better life away from Green Oaks, Kurt has been finding it too easy, becoming addicted to sleep. In his slumber, Kurt finds he can remind himself of the better life he once had. One night, Kurt spots Lisa with a toy monkey in her handbag, the same toy he’s seen the little girl glimpsed on the CCTV holding. As the truth behind Kate Meany’s disappearance is revealed, Kurt and Lisa become closer to one another, and each is forced to not only reassess their lives, but to make dramatic and profound changes.

Most illuminating about ‘What Was Lost’ is the looking glass it holds up to the absolute insanity of the retail world and its myriad of social mores and values. The whole concept of spending weekends shopping is an insane one, and O’Flynn deftly sheds a light on it.

If there is criticism to be made of ‘What Was Lost’, it’s that the storylines are too swiftly and neatly wrapped up in the conclusion. A minor character is unexpectedly shoved centre-stage and the return of one character from the sixty-page prologue fits with the narrative but is unexpected. And it’s a shame as that character’s return is so rich with dramatic possibility that the reader wishes that O’Flynn had made it a novel about three inter-linking narratives instead of just concentrating on the growing relationship between Kurt and Lisa.

But for a debut novel, What Was Lost is amazingly accomplished. Perhaps a sequel could take up the story of that third character?

Pete Carvill
is an editor of 3:AM Magazine.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, March 16th, 2008.