This is a quirky little book and it reminds me a lot of Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson. Like that book, this one is narrated (for a while, anyway) by a young girl and is filled with an Atkinson-like blend of whimsy and despair. What Was Lost won the 2008 Costa prize for first novel. The Costa prize used to be called the Whitbread prize; Atkinson won the Whitbread prize for Behind the Scenes at the Museum in 1995. The Costa/Whitbread prize is a British award and I enjoy the winners of this (and the Booker prize) a lot more than I do their U.S. counterparts (winners of the Pulitzer, National Book Award, Pen/Faulkner, etc.).
Okay, enough of that. I also like lots of books that never win anything. It’s hard to describe the plot of What Was Lost. Most of it takes place at an enormous shopping mall in the English Midlands. The mall, called Green Oaks, has replaced the factories and the mills that provided employment for generations of folks in the area. Men who used to work in manufacturing are reduced to pushing brooms around its vast hallways or staring at mall security monitors, and we follow their sad lives and the lives of the sales clerks in the music store and the glue sniffers who hang out on the roof. It’s a dark and tragic world underneath the green oaks.
If the mall is a dystopia, Kate Meany provides us with a flash of light and humor. Kate is a 10-year-old girl who likes to hang out at the mall with her toy monkey, keeping a watch out for potential criminals. She owns a book called How to Be a Detective and she is working hard practicing her craft. Kate eventually goes missing, and the connections between her life, her disappearance, and events at the mall almost 20 years later provide most of the action in the book.
At first the switch from one set of characters (Kate and her friends and family in 1984) to another (Lisa and hers in 2003) is confusing. I wasn’t sure how it all was connected. But O’Flynn gradually reveals the way the plot threads wind around one another in surprising ways and the book’s resolution is simultaneously sad and uplifting.
(Book 8, 2009)