Watch out. I'm about to start 'yammering'.
A few months ago, while reading the blog of London bookseller, Crockett and Powell, I read a passionate, startling recommendation of Catherine O'Flynn's debut novel What Was Lost. I had never heard of it before. A few days later it popped up again, this time at The Bedside Crow. In March it was Book of the Month on Radio 5 live and appeared on the Orange Prize longlist. Published by a small but evidently market-savvy publisher - Tindal Street Press - O'Flynn's novel was suddenly everywhere I looked. Everywhere. I must have missed it when it made the rounds of the mainstream review outlets in January, but it was getting good coverage in the blogosphere: Susan Hill, dovegreyreader and, more recently, Vulpes Libris, all gave it a thumbs up. Then, last Wednesday night*, it got a special mention at the Orange ceremony - Jackie Kay said that it had pained the New Writer's Judges to omit it from their shortlist.
I was, finally, sold. Thursday morning saw Esther and I in Waterstones in Oxford, wheely suitcase in tow, hunting down a copy, and I duly devoured most of it on our train back to York later in the day. It didn't disappoint: funny and socially astute, with a keen eye for what is both ridiculous and disturbing in our consumer-driven society, it also had the courage of its convictions in tackling the fallout - alienation, loneliness and guilt - surrounding the disappearance of a young child.
It has two narrative strands: the first set in 1984 and centred on Kate Meaney, a 10 year old 'private detective', and the second set in 2003/4 and split between Lisa Palmer, a deputy retail manager and Kurt, an insomniac security guard. The setting for both, however, is the Green Oaks Shopping Centre, one of those depressing loci of twentieth-century consumerism, replete with ersatz streets, fountains and its own radio station. Opened in the later 1970s as the model of convenience, it has gradually become the kind of place that disconsolate couples and families go on a weekend because buying stuff is better than spending yet another day in each others' company:
'This is how we spent our Sundays now. It's become quite the tradition... Go to Green Oaks and get that thing we need. Maybe when we're here we'll find something else we want as well... We haven't found anything we want to buy today. We're going in all the right shops but nothing's really grabbing us. It's raining outside, so what else would we be doing? Sitting at home staring at each other. Going up the walls on a Sunday afternoon, that's what we used to do. Thank God for Sunday trading.'
(This from one of the anonymous shoppers whose short interior vignettes punctuate the main story.) Thus the atmosphere that O'Flynn creates is one of soulless claustrophobia, of an endless round of meaningless purchase and profit - the epitome of banality; a haven for lost souls.
Yet for Kate Meaney there is something thrilling and dangerous about the place; as she would have it: 'Crime was out there. Undetected, unseen.' Deserted by her mother in early childhood and lately bereft by the death of her loving father, she has retreated into a fantastical world of good and evil modelled on the detective fiction of Raymond Chandler. Backed up by her redoubtable partner 'Mickey', a stuffed monkey dressed in spats, she has taken to patrolling Green Oaks' strands day after day, 'detecting' criminal activity. In her diary she minutely records the 'deviancy' of her subjects:
'Friday 20th April: Woman in blue raincoat spotted once more on bench outside Mothercare. Today she had a pushchair, but still no child.
Tuesday 24th April: Nothing to report today. Man seen eating orange peel from brown paper bag. Followed him for 40 minutes but no further deviancy observed. Spent two hours outside banks - no one looked wrong.'
She is contentedly driven in her search for wrong-doing to the exclusion of all else, absolutely certain that sooner or later she will 'see someone...with a different look on their face. Anxiety, or cunning, or hate, or desire, and she would know that they were a suspect.' Undoubtedly, her obsession serves as a mechanism to mask her pounding grief and loneliness.
She has no home-life to speak of - she lives with an elderly and indifferent grandmother - and has no trouble slipping off to the centre after school and at weekends. No one notices her. Indeed, she keeps an almost pathological low-profile; a veritable poster child for emotional neglect. She is amenable and quietly clever at school, and her only friends to speak of are Adrian Palmer, a young man in his 20s who works in a neighbouring newsagents, and Teresa Stanton, a classmate suffering systematic physical abuse. They both know about her 'detective agency', but not about her troubling fixation with Green Oaks' underbelly. Thus neither is equipped to counsel the police on her likely whereabouts when, one day late in 1984, she suddenly and mysteriously disappears.
Until, that is, the early hours of Boxing Day ten years later:
'He never expected to see anything on the CCTV. No-one ever did on the nightshift...But then she appeared in the middle of the night... He saw the figure standing in front of the banks and building societies on level 2. It was a child, a girl, though her face was hard to see. She stood perfectly still, a notebook in one hand and a toy monkey sticking our of her bag. Kurt spun round to pick up his radio...and as he turned back to the screens he saw her disappear out of picture.'
The fuzzy, low-grade quality of this image is the stuff that horror stories are made of - the young child, missing for a decade, coming back to haunt the same shopping centre she frequented in life. For Kurt, the security guard who sees it, it is a resounding wake-up call. Like Kate before him he pounds Green Oaks' corridors on the look out for crime (although he is hardly as inspired by the prospect) and like her he uses the Centre to blanket grief and loneliness. Having lost his girlfriend in a car accident, and given up all prospect of a 'real' career, he has offered himself up as a sacrifice to his role there; quietly though, slowly but surely, the monotony is carving up his sanity. Kate's ghostly appearance is a catalyst for change, galvinising him to re-examine his life, particularly his relationship with his over-bearing father and with his own conscience.
The next day Lisa Palmer, deputy manager of Your Music and another victim of the boggy tedium of Green Oaks', finds a stuffed monkey, dressed in classy spats, in one of the service corridors behind her store. Unlike Kurt, she has every reason to recognise it immediately: ten years ago her brother Adrian was accused of the molestation and murder of its owner. What follows is a startling investigation into Kate's final day, and an indightment of the sad absurdities of contemporary Britain.
O'Flynn's novel is incredibly brave in tackling 'what was lost'. Not just the loss of Kate - she is the story's headline but hardly its first cause - or the subsequent waste of Adrian Palmer's life (or Lisa's, or Kurt's), but the loss of trust, family and wider community that underlies the narrative. The building of Green Oaks is ultimately destructive: it is built on the remains of industry, symbolic of the end of British manufacturing and the consequent loss of thousands' of jobs, and predicated on the homogenisation of commercial experiences. It has sucked the life out of local businesses - Adrian's newsagency is, ironically, one of the only shops to survive; the butcher's next door isn't so lucky. Even in Kate's time his shop is failing:
'Mr Watkins was an old man, Kate estimated probably seventy eight. He was a nice man with a nice wife but very few people bought their meat from him any more. Kate thought this possibly had something to do with the way Mr Watkins stood in his shop window swatting flies against the sides of the meat with a large palette knight. It was also a self-perpetuating situation, in that the fewer customers Mr Watkins had, the less meat he stocked and the less meat he had the less he looked like a bucther, and the more he looked like a crazy old man who collected and displayed bits of flesh in his front window.'
By 2003/4 the local shops have become a hang-out for gangs of youths: Kurt's mother, who insists on getting her groceries there, is brutally beaten at the end of the novel. But she is unrepentent:
'She just didn't like it there [at Green Oaks], couldn't understand why everyone flocked there and deserted the local shops where people knew your name and asked after your family. The attack had shaken her, but it wouldn't stop her.'
What O'Flynn seems to abhor most of all is the anonyminity of modern life, the increasingly inpersonal nature of our human transactions. It is the loss of intimacy and, concurrently, of basic emotional literacy that dogs the novel. This is a point forcefully made in the italicised vignettes at the end of chapters which interrogate visitors to the Centre - these 'shoppers', young, old, male and female, have no identity. Their interior monologues are highly personal but nobody is looking, nobody sees; equally, nobody listens, nobody hears. This is the great irony in a novel in which looking and hearing are of the utmost importance, what with Kate's investigations, Kurt's thirteen years in front of the security screens and Lisa's day to day battle for aural harmony at Your Music.
In the end, however, What Was Lost is a novel about desire: the desire for love, for meaning, for contact. Kate's final day at the Centre is the day on which she meets the subject of her desire: the criminal:
'She had always known she would see something different in his face and as she drew closer she felt a thrill of recognition as his features became clearer. The man was looking towards the children's play area...'
What Kate does not realise is that, almost simultaneously, the man recognises her, the much-contemplated object of his desire: the victim. In a moment of terrifying symmetry, they understand that they have always been meant for each other, that something essential about their life experiences have brought them to this juncture. You might call it destiny. And Green Oaks is the monstrous, chaotic scene of it all, and of the pathos of all the other wasted or deformed lives which O'Flynn envisions:
'Four hundred thousand different stories on a busy day, floating up in the air like foil balloons, sticking to the ceiling. Green Oaks is more than bricks or mortar... The voices merge and give the place its own sound. No one notices it, but they all hear it: it's what brings them here - the low-level static hiss. If you could tune to the right frequency the individual voices would break through then then you'd hear them all. You'd hear what they were hoping to find at Green Oaks.'
But, ultimately, it can only take and O'Flynn knows it.
*This post was mostly written on Monday 11th June, but remained unfinished because of the cold/flu lurgy I caught at the Orange Prize.