Catherine O’Flynn’s novel What Was Lost (my copy sent to me by the publisher) is a good read, not perfect, but absorbing; it’s a mystery, sort of, not a traditional one with a detective who solves the crime, but a mystery nonetheless — it tells the story of a young girl who one day disappears and of the people left behind who after 19 years discover what happened.
The novel begins with a 70-page section on that young girl, Kate Meaney, an orphan living with her grandmother. Actually when I said the novel doesn’t have a detective, that’s not quite true; this novel’s detective is the one who disappears, Kate herself. Armed with her book How to Be a Detective, she sets up her own detecting business, although so far it’s had only one customer, her friend Adrian, a young man who works at a nearby shop. This section of the novel is utterly charming, and that’s because Kate is such a great character — smart, lively, full of ideas, serious and unselfconscious in that way only children can be. Kate has lost much — she doesn’t remember her mother who left when she was very young, and she found her father’s body after he died from a stroke — but she seems to have found ways of coping, her detecting work perhaps chief among them, with its focus on putting the world to rights.
The next section, which makes up the bulk of the book, shifts 19 years into the future, and here I felt some dissatisfaction, as I didn’t want to leave Kate’s company, and I thought the pace slowed and dragged in some moments. Kate had done most of her detecting work in the Green Oaks Mall, and in the second section the scene settles here permanently, introducing us to a number of new characters, most importantly Lisa, Adrian’s sister who knew Kate slightly and who works in a music store, and Kurt, a mall security guard. Both of these characters, who don’t know each other at the section’s beginning, although they eventually meet, are unhappy in their jobs and with their lives, but they haven’t yet found any way of changing their situations. The novel spends a good deal of time introducing us to their families and their lives.
The two sections intersect when Kurt notices a mysterious young girl on the security camera; his efforts to track this girl down lead him toward Lisa and toward solving the mystery of what happened to Kate.
The book is about lost people — not only is Kate lost, but her friend Adrian also disappears when he is accused of complicity in Kate’s disappearance — but it’s also about lost communities and lost dreams. The Green Oaks Mall becomes the concrete symbol of these more nebulous losses; after its construction the city center disappears, its shops forced to close because of the mall’s power to lure their customers away. The mall was built over an abandoned industrial site and so in its very being tells the story of the loss of solid manufacturing jobs and their replacement by service positions. Kurt’s father was laid off by one of the now-abandoned factories, and he refuses to shop at the mall or to allow his family to shop there, the symbol of their lost economic security.
O’Flynn is particularly good at describing the horrors of the mall (and I’m particularly open to hearing about how horrible they are, as there are few places I hate more than a mall); an institution that bleeds the life out of its employees, who work low-wage jobs with abusive bosses and equally abusive, sometimes insane, customers. The mall seems to bleed the life out of the customers as well, who often appear as zombie-like creatures, wandering around buying things because they have nothing better to do. It’s a nightmarish place, symbolizing a society that has lost its way and perhaps lost its soul.
This is not an entirely sad book, as its ending does have glimmers of hope and promise, and the mystery does get solved, but the novel does such a good job of showing loss on many levels that I closed it feeling sad for the people and the world it describes. The novel’s structure and pacing left me a little dissatisfied, but there are lots of other things to admire in the novel, and if the subject matter sounds interesting to you, I would recommend it.