WHAT WAS LOST by Catherine O’Flynn

Lost I joke around on here that my natural taste in books seems consistently to run to “domestic fiction” – books about families, relationships, friendships. The plots of books I select on my own are probably shockingly similar (though of course the characters aren’t, which is what keeps me reading). While I do deviate from this band of themes at times, it is with varying success.

Today I finished What Was Lost, by Catherine O’Flynn, which is at its heart a mystery. While it was a well-written book, I have to say that it didn’t capture my interest the way the “domestic fiction” books do. 

What Was Lost is told in four sections that alternate between 1984 and 2003. The 1983 sections are about Kate Meaney, a precocious but lonely 10 year-old who spends her long afternoons at a newly-built shopping mall in England, playing detective. Her beloved father has died, her mother has abandoned her, and her only friends are Adrian, a 22 year-old boy (Kate frequents his father’s sweetshop and offers suggestions for how to stem shoplifting) and Theresa, a rebellious, but brilliant, girl in her class. Then one day, Kate disappears, leaving Adrian as the main suspect.

In the 2004 sections, the main characters are Lisa (Adrian’s sister), who works at a record store, and Kurt, a security guard – both of whom work at the same mall where Kate disappeared. Kurt sees Kate (as a 10 year-old) on a security screen one evening, while Lisa finds evidence of Kate in a back corridor at the mall. Through these development, Flynn explores the lives of these unhappy characters, who are plodding away at jobs they don’t like and muddling through unfulfilling relationships. Kurt and Lisa become friends and explore the indelible mark that Kate’s disappearance left on their lives in the 80s, which continues through the present.

O’Flynn’s novel is really about the disconnectedness of urban life and the difficulty of taking risks (emotional, professional, etc.) in the face of modern apathy, numbness and consumerism. As Kurt’s mother, who has long held secrets from him. says at the end of the book, “What’s the point in telling people bad things?” The book is full of people who are living lies and telling half-truths. Of course, most are revealed at the end of the book, and there is resolution of Kate’s disappearance and who was responsible.

I am not sure why I didn’t love this book, as many others have. Like I said, I am really not a mystery or thriller fan. And while this book does explore relationships, and has a lot interesting to say about modern society, I guess I just didn’t love its shadowy, noir side. 

O’Flynn is a very good writer – very funny at times, poignant at others – and I would recommend What Was Lost to readers who enjoy the type of story I’ve described. The blog Of Books and Bikes felt very much the way I did about this book – check out the review if you’re interested.