Sunday, August 17, 2008

Harriet the Spy crossed with The Child in Time (Books - What was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn)

Take one part Harriet the Spy, cross it with a good mystery, add to it a grown-up novel with some social criticism and some people would make a mess. What Catherine O'Flynn has achieved is an engrossing first book, What Was Lost. Kate, the 10-year-old central character of the sections of the book set in the1984 does not have many friends her own age. She lived with her father, a man who introduces her to the wonders of crime solving with the gift of How to be a Detective, a gift I would have treasured at the age of ten. When he dies suddenly and Kate's passions are transferred to Falcon Investigations, her newly created business, putting herself through rigorous exercises of surveillance of mostly imagined scenarios in the newly built shopping mall. Her one friend is the 22-year-old son of a local shopkeeper, Adrian. When Kate mysteriously disappears one day, Adrian falls under suspicion by the police. Even though he is innocent, a sense of shame and a rabid press, hound him out of town and he too disappears.

Cut to the 00s, where Lisa, the younger sister of Adrian, is caught in a miserable retail job in the no-longer-new shopping mall, living with a fellow employee out of sheer habit. She befriends one of the mall's security guards, stuck in equally unsatisfying circumstances. He begins seeing a young girl on the mall's surveillance cameras and Lisa finds a toy monkey that may have belonged to Kate and their interest in a 20-year-old mystery is rekindled. I'm not going to tell you what happened as the mystery kept me reading this book all yesterday until I had finished. But what is singular about it is not the mystery and sadness of a missing child, its the sadness of the many people in it living half-lives out of habit and lack of courage. People who are sure that the key to a good happy life is buying the right things at the right time. O'Flynn criticism wields a playful sense of humor:

As Lisa reached the shop floor, she noticed there were now twelve units across the store, dominated by Queen's Greatest Hits, volumes 1 and 2. This morning there had been four which she had thought was overkill, but in a brief but colorful exchange with Crawford, a difference of opinion on this matter became clear.

She finally got to the counter just five minutes late to cover Dan's lunch. Her first customer was a middle-aged woman with eyebrows drawn very high on her forehead. "Save me looking, love," said the lady. "Where's that Queen one?"

As Lisa led the customer back to one of the eight Queen display unites she had passed on her way to the counter, it occurred to her that the woman might be blind; this would shed light on the misplaced eyebrows as well. She sometimes wondered if some people would rather be blind. Save me looking was something she heard several times a day, and she couldn't understand what the big effort was in visual reception. She was unsure if it was acute laziness that led someone to ask someone else to use their eyes for them, or some belief that vision was a finite resource they didn't want to wear out.

Kate, even though a child, has experienced her share of loss. Her eye is still an inexperienced one, as she seeks out the depths of other humans in their surface appearance. But I suppose many adults do the same:
She knew that one day she would see someone by the banks with a different look on his face - anxiety, or cunning, or hate, or desire - and she would know that this person was a a suspect. So she scanned faces for any flicker of deviance. Her eyes moved over the play area, where there were some children her own age looking unimpressed with the facilities. They were too old for the jungle fantasy and the ball pool, but unlike Kate they didn't seem to realize that the whole center was an enormous playground. She felt the dull ache of loneliness in her stomach, but her brain didn't register it. It was old news.

I thought O'Flynn's eye for the injustices of life as perceived by a child was particularly acute. There are passages on working in a mall that sound suspiciously like a writer venting after a few too many months working in retail. I sometimes wondered if anyone aside from those with impulse control problems and a poor eye for makeup went shopping in this mall. But overall the book is well constructed, its understanding of human beings compassionate, its narrative voice accessible, and the mystery of what happened to Kate kept me reading right through to the end.
Thank you, Scott Pack, for the recommendation.


Sam said...

Sounds interesting, Ted, so I'm off to search my local library's website.


Ted said...

Hi Sam - It was a good one, it's still fairly new so I hope your library has a copy.

Anonymous said...

You know, I've seen this around a lot. I've always been this close to picking it up. Maybe next time I see it on the shelf I'll buy it. This review convinces me.

Anonymous said...

You know, I've seen this around a lot. I've always been this close to picking it up. Maybe next time I see it on the shelf I'll buy it. This review convinces me.