Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

I'm All Lost in the Supermarket: What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn

What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn

What Was Lost is partly a mystery and partly a ghost story, but more than anything, it's a story about characters whose lives should have turned out otherwise.

At the heart of it, is a precocious 10-year-old girl and aspiring detective named Kate Meany, who lives with her grandmother in a Birmingham neighborhood full of shops, but no families or children her own age. Largely unsupervised, Kate spends her days stalking the nearby Green Oaks Shopping Center for potential jewel thieves and ne'er-do-wells, a stuffed monkey named Mickey and a notebook at her side.

Her only friend is Adrian, a young man who returns home to work in his father's newspaper shop after college, and Kate spends hours in the shop talking to him. Until the day she doesn't come home. Unable to find other leads, suspicion falls on Adrian, though police never press charges. Still, the moment he can, Adrian disappears, too.

After a remarkable beginning, the book jumps ahead 20 years to 2003, where we meet Lisa, Adrian's sister. Like most other working people in Birmingham, Lisa was unable to avoid the mind-numbing stability of Green Oaks. She's the assistant manager of a record store, a job she initially took for a year to save up money to travel -- now, she's been there for years, working for a petty tyrant boss, and is living with a co-worker boyfriend she neither likes nor dislikes. Alongside Lisa is Kurt, currently serving the thirteenth year of his sentence at Green Oaks as a security guard. Kurt is haunted by the death of his wife, and by the image of a little girl with a stuffed monkey who appears on the security cameras.

Predictably, their stories come together; however, the secrets that are revealed when they do are markedly unpredictable. O'Flynn spends a good deal of time in the day to day lives of the shopping center employees, an endless cycle of cramped breakroom lunches, malfunctioning elevators, cold wars with annoying customers, and the threat of unannounced mystery shoppers who never arrive. The accounting of this tedium, which will ring true to anyone who's ever worked retail, lulled me into believing that nothing important could possibly happen here.

However, it does, and it will snap you out of your shopping mall stupor in nothing flat. The resolution is perhaps too abrupt and quickly handled, but O'Flynn's eye for detail and storytelling chops make What Was Lost more than deserving of its many accolades and awards (the book was first published in the U.K. in 2007).

If you liked...: Case Histories by Kate Atkinson or What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman, this book is for you.

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