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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

What Was Lost

Catherine O'Flynn

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To purchase What Was Lost

Title: What Was Lost
Author: Catherine O'Flynn
Genre: Novel
Written: 2007
Length: 240 pages
Availability: What Was Lost - US
What Was Lost - UK
What Was Lost - Canada

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Our Assessment:

A- : very nicely done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Age A 19/2/2008 Heidi Maier
Boston Globe A 3/8/2008 Richard Eder
Christian Science Monitor B+ 19/7/2008 Marjorie Kehe
The Guardian A 17/2/2007 Catherine Taylor
The Independent . 2/3/2007 Emma Hagestadt
The LA Times A 8/6/2008 Jane Smiley
The NY Sun . 30/6/2008 Laura Collins-Hughes
San Francisco Chronicle . 25/7/2008 Eric Miles Williamson
The Spectator . 16/4/2008 Archie Bland
Sydney Morning Herald A- 9/2/2008 Emily McGuire
The Telegraph . 18/8/2007 Francesca Segal
The Times . 8/9/2007 Kate Saunders
The Village Voice B- 16/7/2008 Alexis Soloski

  Review Consensus:

  Very impressed.

  From the Reviews:
  • "What Was Lost is a refined and impressively original story (…..) In many ways, What Was Lost is more an aching paean to the lost souls whose sad, wayward lives populate its pages than it is a mystery story. (…) What was Lost is a dexterously imagined story. It impressively fuses elements of mysteries that are never quite solved with those of intimate human relationships that are as messy as they are casual and redemptive. A resoundingly bleak tale, it is also filled with pathos and frequently made memorable by its descriptions of the urban wasteland through which its small cast of characters move like ghosts, eking out day-to-day existences that, it seems, will never rise above the stultifying sadness that is bringing them undone." - Heidi Maier, The Age

  • "What drops, in O'Flynn's bleak yet fraily tender story, are the pillars of the human spirit, which, if shaken, have largely sustained our civilization. The opening Kate section -- the novel returns to develop its mysteries at the end -- is a tour de force. Childhood's lonely misapprehension of the adult world is common enough as a fictional theme; O'Flynn finely etches it and makes it new. (...) O'Flynn ties her package a bit too neatly at the end -- happy in part and in part stung by a shadow of grief -- but what she has tied is remarkable." - Richard Eder, Boston Globe

  • "Not everything about the book works. O’Flynn’s intense social commentary grates at times. Yes, I have no problem agreeing that today’s consumer society is unfulfilling for many, that most shopping malls are less appealing than the urban centers they replaced, and that glitzy packaging and products cannot fill the empty spaces in our hearts. I simply didn’t need to have such themes telegraphed to me quite so relentlessly. However, that is not to say that anything came between me and my desire to find out what happened to Kate Meaney. She’s as odd and endearing a girl as you’ll meet in literature and the memory of her will linger long after you read the end of her story." - Marjorie Kehe, Christian Science Monitor

  • "What Was Lost is an exceptional, polyphonic novel of urban disaffection, written with humour and pathos. Kate's deceptively jaunty diary entries reveal a consumer-driven society choking on its own loneliness; a ghost story; and an examination of unspeakable loss." - Catherine Taylor, The Guardian

  • "Partly a ghost story, partly a mystery, this tautly written novel captures both the charm and the ugliness of childhood. Inventive and humorous, O'Flynn saves her best lines for the more monstrous members of the retail trade." - Emma Hagestadt, The Independent

  • "What Was Lost is a delight to read -- poignant, suspenseful, funny and smart. Whoops! Here we go again -- plot, characters, style, wit, themes, social commentary rising from the grave and engaging actual readers! It would be best for you if I said as little as possible about the plot. This is a novel that should have no jacket copy, no advance notices. It should come into your hands unheralded, because if you simply open to the first page and begin reading, you'll proceed in a state of innocent pleasure." - Jane Smiley, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Sharp, funny, and suffused with quiet sadness (.....) An intuitive storyteller who tosses off scenes of Office-style comedy as smoothly and keenly as she anatomizes the aftermath of loss, she breathes not only oxygen but life into a dead zone. (...) In the foreground, amid the laugh lines, the beautifully calibrated suspense, and the punch-in-the-gut plot twists, are notions about the watcher and the watched, about lost chances, about the ripple effects of passivity and failures of courage." - Laura Collins-Hughes, The New York Sun

  • "Perhaps the most confusing aspect of Catherine O'Flynn's first novel, What Was Lost, will be where to shelve it at the bookstore. (...) What Was Lost is an attempt to bridge the gulf between genre work and Literature, a feat accomplished by few authors, notably Gabriel García Márquez, Cormac McCarthy, Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut. As to whether O'Flynn has performed this difficult trick -- well, readers can make their own call." - Eric Miles Williamson, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "O’Flynn never abandons her wry sense of humour, but as she begins to tease out the connections between the two halves of her brilliantly conceived plot, the sense that something’s missing grows stronger and stronger. The masterstroke of that unexpected shift is to make it feel as if the novel itself mourns the absence of its heroine; the irony, of course, is that her presence is felt in every line." - Archie Bland, The Spectator

  • "Despite the humour, the loss of sweet, sad Kate Meaney imbues every page with sorrow and regret. Through Kurt, Lisa and several anonymous shoppers and loiterers we experience many more losses - of people, hopes, illusions and spirit - but O'Flynn's compassion towards her characters means that this novel is far more uplifting than it should be. The final section of the book has us back in 1984 where all is revealed. Certain elements fall into place a little too neatly to be believed but it hardly matters. The mystery is less important than the ways in which those involved learn to live with their losses." - Emily McGuire, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "Catherine O'Flynn's poignant first novel explores bereavement and loneliness, what it is to be invisible and what it takes to be found. Her prose is taut, and the story intricately plotted and compelling." - Francesca Segal, The Telegraph

  • "O’Flynn’s stunning, hugely original first novel was on this year’s Man Booker longlist, and it’s easy to see why -- the loneliness of the characters is heartrending and the shopping centre is a character in its own right; a symbol of the age." - Kate Saunders, The Times

  • "Certainly O'Flynn's talents lie in creation of character. But her plot shambles and digresses, occasionally stopping entirely to jump into the heads of anonymous denizens of the mall where Lisa and Kurt work. Attempts at figurative language or extended allegory are frankly embarrassing" - Alexis Soloski, The Village Voice

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       What Was Lost is full of loss -- though surprisingly, despite the central figure being a ten-year-old girl who disappears, loss of innocence is not a particularly prominent one among them. The novel is divided into four parts, alternating between 1984 and 2003/4, but the first two make up the bulk of the book, with the final two presenting the resolution(s) of the story.
       The first section of What Was Lost, set in 1984, centres closely on ten-year-old Kate Meaney, an independent child obsessed with playing at being a detective. She has her routines, keeps a watchful eye on suspicious doings and characters, ever-alert. She's disappointed that there's practically no crime to thwart, but she remains vigilant. There's a new mall, the Green Oaks Shopping Center, near her home, and it makes for fertile new ground for her imagination and sleuthing (if not much actual crime) and she stakes it out during these school holidays.
       Loss has hit home already: her mother abandoned her and her father years earlier, and her loving but relatively old father is also no longer a presence. Kate can do pretty much as she pleases, but she's an organised and self-disciplined child, trying in whatever way she can to be in control; trying to avert crime gives her a purpose. Practicing being a detective teaches her one way of seeing the world but it also means adapting her behaviour and responses to others' expectations, as she learns how to blend in and appear inconspicuous in a world where it is unusual for such a young child to be unaccompanied by an adult. She gets to be very good at this, able to make herself practically invisible; of course, once she's reached that stage it's only a small step to disappearing altogether .....
       Kate has practically no friends, but she is a part of the small community around her home, where small shopkeepers still putter on, in the shadows, as it were, of the giant new mall. Among other shops, there's a butcher that can hardly still be called a business any more, as well as a newsagent. The newsagent's son, recent university-graduate Adrian, is practically Kate's only friend. Laid back, he doesn't seem to have much ambition and despite his degree prefers still to hang around his father's shop, indifferent to the rat-race.
       Another outsider whom Kate befriends is a student who was relatively new to the local school, Teresa, whose arrival upset the long-established "accepted hierarchies and relationships" in class. Teresa's behaviour at first shocks Kate (and the class and her teachers). It's not so much that she acts out or is cruel, but rather that she is oblivious to the familiar norms, rules, and expectations. She appears to be almost without any sort of moral compass, unable even to: "discern any hierarchies of naughtiness at school". Kate glimpses some of what's behind Teresa's attitude, seeing her bruises and eventually getting some idea from Teresa of her situation at home, but both are incapable of making the adult-world aware of the problems. Still, in her childish way, Kate manages to reach out -- as does Teresa (who also proves to be a bright girl). It's not enough to save both of them, but O'Flynn presents these young girls' gestures very well, and if the ultimate ripple-effect is almost too good to be true, it is still reached and presented in a way that makes it very satisfying.
       This first quarter of the book beautifully builds up the character of Kate, a girl who has seen some hardship but seems comfortable in her own skin, and is nothing if not determined. Still: she's always seeking, and for all the hours she spends watching these still have never led to anything, and she is no more a girl on the verge by the end of this section of the novel than at the beginning.
       The second part of the book jumps ahead to the end of 2003, during the post-Christmas shopping period at the Green Oaks Shopping Center. New characters are introduced: Kurt, a security guard on the night shift, and then Lisa -- Adrian's younger sister, mentioned in little more than passing in the first section -- who is a deputy manager at a huge music store in the mall. But most conspicuous is Kate, absent except in a few memories: she disappeared some twenty years earlier, and her disappearance remains a mystery. There were: "No witnesses, no sightings, no body".
       Or so it seems, anyway. But little girls don't simply disappear. Wisely, however, O'Flynn does not focus on the 'mystery', but rather on the void that was left -- and she does so all the more effectively by focussing on these two characters whom Kate's disappearance touched more or less only peripherally.
       Lisa can't forget Kate because her brother was suspected of being involved in the girl's disappearance, apparently the last person to be seen with her. He couldn't take it, and he, too, disappeared, though he makes sure his sister knows he's still alive. And Kurt, watching the monitors of the surveillance cameras on Boxing Day morning before the mall opens, briefly sees an image of a girl with a toy monkey sticking out of her bag -- just like Kate had had .....
       O'Flynn takes her time in describing the days and weeks that follow, and the lives of Kurt and Lisa. Each has lost a loved one: Lisa's brother is alive, but almost completely disconnected from her life, while Kurt lost the great love of his life a few years earlier (twice over, no less). Both are stuck in their lives, Kurt in a dead-end job he's been wanting to get out of for thirteen years, Lisa making her way up a career- and life-path she doesn't want to really be on, complete with lover whom she doesn't even much like but has somehow wound up with. They're older than the characters in Scarlett Thomas' Going Out, but the feel of much of the book here is the same as in Thomas', a consumer-oriented world of nightmarish corporate employment where it's easy to play and go along but from which it's impossible to derive much satisfaction. Kurt and Lisa are both in a deep, deep rut.
       It's with the social-commercial critique that O'Flynn goes just slightly (and unnecessarily) too far, unable to resist making Green Oaks a work environment straight out of a TV-sitcom:

     Green Oaks was not a pleasant place to work. In 1997 the management team, in accordance with the strategic business objectives of Leisure Land Global Investments (owners of forty-two retail parks around the world), sent out their first annual questionnaire to ascertain working conditions for their nine thousand employees. It revealed levels of dissatisfaction so consistent and acute that, unknown to its subjects, it later went on to become a case study for undergraduate sociologists. A second survey never materialized.
       This and some of the descriptions of the working conditions are far too blunt in a story that otherwise does subtlety so nicely. Still, the stultifying atmosphere, and the effect on the characters (including Kurt's family and other co-workers) does make a nice contrast to eager and wide-eyed Kate's fascination with a world she can just observe and not really yet be part of.
       If the details surrounding Kate's disappearance remain murky until the very end, the general circumstances of what happened don't come as too much of a surprise. But while O'Flynn didn't need to telegraph so much about who was involved she still offers enough surprises to make for a satisfying end.
       What Was Lost is a work of very deft writing and a very, very good read -- hard to put down, easy to get through. Certainly recommended.

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What Was Lost: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       English author Catherine O'Flynn was born in 1970.

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© 2008 the complete review

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