01.09 What Was Lost

What Was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn
January 2009 Meeting

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  1. madeleinebbc

     /  February 4, 2009

    Loved it! Loved it! Loved it! If I’d bought my own copy, I’d lend it to everyone I know.

    I was totally engaged and entertained from the first page. When it was revealed that the young girl had gone missing, I felt a real pang of dread and sadness, as if I’d heard an item of news on the radio, as if she was real… Passages describing the interactions between staff and customers of the record shop had me laughing out loud. The vignettes describing thought processes of customers, shopping centre staff, the mystery shopper, et al were well written, and contributed to the overall theme of the book as a chronical of events in otherwise unconnected lives.

    Thank you BBC for bringing this book into my life!

  2. malcolmbbc

     /  January 27, 2009

    Others have already set out the good points of this book in loving detail. For me, I’d agree that:

    1. I enjoyed reading the book; it was never a chore and the story rattled along.

    2. I loved the character of Kate. She has an unusual and interesting perspective on the world, yet one which I found believable and which had resonance.

    3. There were some amusing little stories or insights from some of the other characters.

    However, to give another perspective, there were also bits I wasn’t so convinced about:

    1. I didn’t find the ending as satisfying as others have suggested. It was logical, so no complaints there. I just felt that after all the build up, it was a bit of an anticlimax. No unearthing of a body. No miraculous appearance of a ghost after a possible sighting. No great crime, just a rather sad accident following a rather odd trailing of one character after another. Going back to the beginning and showing how Kate’s actions in the past had dramatically impacted on her friend was a nice touch. However, it didn’t make up for my disappointment about the loss of Kate.

    2. The other characters (aside from Kate) did not grab my interest in the same way. Once we moved onto the second part of the story, it started to feel a bit “Hornby Lite” to me.

    3. Sarah’s written a beautiful review, above, but I think she has argued her case rather better than O’Flynn does! Yes, the author does throw a light upon the workings of a shopping centre and a music shop within that centre, but I didn’t think that there was anything too radical within this. OK, its interesting to think about the contrast between the “public” and “service” areas or the way in which tiresome jobs can influence the people who have to carry them out, but I didn’t find any great surprises here. Again, I am reminded a bit of Hornby. This isn’t a bad thing, because I like his books … but I read them because they are light and entertaining, not because they have deep social resonance! I’m not saying the themes aren’t there in “What was Lost”, just that they are lightly drawn. If the author doesn’t choose to make so much of them, perhaps we shouldn’t either?

  3. hilaryfbbc

     /  January 26, 2009

    I started this book wondering if we’d been given a teenage novel in disguise, confused as to Kate’s age but loving her sparky diary whatever age she turned out to be.
    Once the story moved forward to the 21st century it picked up pace beautifully; I liked the (to me) fresh writing style, and found nothing hackneyed or cliched anywhere, which is really refreshing.
    Having been both to Sheffield’s ‘Meadow Hell’ and Derby ‘Westlife’ centres, I was impressed with the scarily real feel of this book; these massive shopping centres are something like cathedrals must have been in the Middle Ages – awesome and belittling (‘humbling’ in religious-speak) – central and in a way necessary to the society of the age; the big difference being the profit motive? Certainly the book show how life has been sucked away from local shops, now struggling to serve their communities; and how people in these smaller localities are effectively disempowered/ alienated from the ‘mainstream’- a really dysfunctional system has evolved. Not surprising if the people are weird !
    The ‘Your Music’ store described reminded me of a trip into Derby last November, looking for local Christmas carols (eg Coope, Boyes & Simpson from Derbyshire – folk music) and Musica Donum Dei (Notts-based baroque music) – on CDs for Christmas presents. I went to Foulds Music shop – they have stopped stocking any CDs for the obvious reason. They suggested HMV. In there I was astonished that the 1st floor now seems to be approx 75% DVDs. After queueing, an assistant told me I would be quicker ordering what I wanted from the internet; he said he used to run an independent music store in Derby but had to close, and now has to work in HMV.
    My only disappointment with the book really was that I felt I would have liked to have learnt more about Teresa’s perspective and character, she was the only person who, being critically important to the storyline, had a relatively sketchy outline and I couldn’t get a real hold on her.
    Is there such a word as “aspergic” (cf Moira’s blog, above)? It’s a good word!
    As a separate note – I think this excellent book vindicates the Derbyshire Bookchat list system from which we choose the majority of our books – I don’t think in the ordinary course of events I would have picked this up in a library or bought it in a small independent bookshop (or Waterstones) I know we’ve had a few choices that have felt like a waste of time, but on the whole I think it works well, particularly as we can supplement with classics, our own recommendations and so on.

  4. moirabbc

     /  January 24, 2009

    What a superb debut novel! It has acute socio/political critique, sardonic humour, sympathetic main characters drawn with tenderness, unsympathetic characters to contrast and a plot that seemed to work. It provided much reflection and for me, is all that contemporary fiction should be.
    The shopping mall is the symbol of our age and I loved the writer’s depiction of Green Oaks as a souless, but sinister organism. It has gobbled up communities, traditional manufacturing and jobs. Malls have an air of unreality; they can be crowded with people but they are anonymous, impersonal. They are a magnet for the lonely, the disturbed, the bored, the perennially dissatisfied. All is illusory: the air is conditioned, the light is controlled, service tunnels are hidden behind mirror-panelled walls. Those service tunnels! O’Flynn evokes the eerieness and contrasting unkemptness of these – a netherworld indeed.
    During our discussion, we did consider whether some of us were being over-sentimental and nostalgic about local communities with shops,houses and workplaces. Obviously some manufacturing jobs were unpleasant and difficult, local shops had their limitations but what has replaced them is not progress. I have tried retail therapy when I have been bored or low but I always find it aanything but therapeutic. Somehow, I don’t learn the lesson and am drawn back to be frustrated again.
    Like Sarah, I admit to having reservations about the credibility of Kate and Adrian’s friendship but as it developed, I found it credible and moving. I want to live in a society where a sensitive, kind young man can enjoy the company of a bright but arguably needy 10 year old girl without the accusation of grooming for sexual abuse. These 2 central characters are never going to be drones to the consumerist queen bee. Tragically, they have to be sacrificed to appease this angry, voracious god.
    I liked the description of Kurt’s grief, his sleep disorder and the ennervating effect of his job as a security guard in the mall. How is it possible to stay sane while nightly gazing at cctv monitors that are largely devoid of activity? His colleague, Gavin isn’t sane or is he just an aspergic collector of facts about malls, the only kind of person who could ‘thrive’ in such employment?
    This book had disturbing local, recent resonances. A few months ago, a bright, sensitive young man, ended his life by jumping from the roof of the Westfield Shopping Centre in Derby. Some of the crowd gathered below shouted for him to jump, said he was wasting taxpayers’ money, was a loser and no doubt, played a significant part in his decision to die. A senior policeman, when asked why the area had not been cleared of people, stated that they wanted to minimise the disruption to shoppers. This says it all.

  5. michelebbc

     /  January 21, 2009

    Brilliant comment, thats what i meant to say!

  6. Sarah

     /  January 21, 2009

    Deft observation, humour, mystery, a satisfying conclusion, and characters sympathetic, obnoxious, and just plain weird, but all eminently believable.

    Initially I was unsettled by the disconcerting shifts in mood throughout. Parts of the book which were laugh out loud funny, followed instantly by some dark, laughter-killing revelation. Similarly with the disparate descriptions of Green Oaks Shopping Centre; each well observed and believable, I was happy to accommodate multiple contradictory points of view, to the point of feeling slightly schizophrenic.

    I thought this served well to personify the shopping centre; demented as a consequence of the constant ‘static.’ This may be enough to procure Green Oaks a role as villain of the piece. But whom are we to hold accountable?

    Essentially, a shopping centre can only be passive. Built for us, by us, it exists only as a function of our patronage. And yet, we feel threatened by the implacable, relentless existence of these places. Shopping malls are the symptom of a consumeristic imperative which will not be denied and is rarely acknowledged.

    The ‘zombie’ comment early in the book, perhaps a reference to the classic zombie movie, ‘Dawn of the Dead,’ clues us in to the nature of the shopping centre that I think we were supposed to perceive. But I didn’t find it quite as simple as that.

    Firstly, there was shopping centre as blank slate. At least three of the characters populate the centre from their fantastical imaginations. Perhaps this is the only thing that makes their lonely lives bearable, and the centre tolerable… On the other hand maybe this is the dangerous siren call of the shopping centre; that the story-making and illusory attachments to strangers are more entertaining and less threatening than the reality without. Green Oaks as hell or haven?

    Then there is the Green Oaks with its hidden depths and heights. I loved the idea of the subterranean labyrinthine corridors, and the roofs. With their promises of concealment and escape, the whole place begins to feel quite enticing… Of course, these features could also symbolise the appeal of consumerism. Later in the book both places become dark and malevolent, and consumerism is by association exposed as a false god.

    Finally, there is the juxtaposition of shiny customer spaces, and the dingy staff areas hidden behind mirrored walls. The deceit and inherent exploitativity of the shopping experience are again unmasked. (Unless you were defending the shopping centre, in which case you might draw a parallel with a Narnia-like hidden world.)

    The characters were also unsettling, with unexpected reversals throughout.

    Kurt and Green Oaks are virtually the same character, trapped in a repeating pattern of events, haunted and haunting. Both are, in a sense, the good guy… and also the bad guy. Neither is capable of action, both are culpable through passivity.

    Adrian is an unfortunate victim of circumstance, but at an early point in the narrative I briefly entertained an uncharitable thought towards him; quickly dismissed as unworthy, but leaving me with an uncomfortable sense of complicity in his fate.

    When a female detective is mentioned towards the end of the book, for one incredulous moment I thought that Kate was still alive. It becomes apparent that she is not, but then, in a strange sense, she is (through the direction Teresa’s life has been given) and so the otherwise tragic ending is lent an upbeat feel.

    Gavin does and does not fit this pattern. There is an apparent reversal; initially harmless, then malign. But in reality he is consistently passive throughout. Gavin leads the way, unintentionally, to a Kate lost and broken in the dark. Kate is not compelled to follow this suspected criminal, and yet she does so, with no thought for the possible repercussions. Given the close association between Gavin and Green Oaks, I thought this was a clever summary and metaphor for the whole thrust of the book.

    Ironically, Kate, who never succeeds in uncoupling her fate from that of the shopping centre, more deeply subject to the inertia of the place than any other character, is the only one who is seen to have had a meaningful influence on reality.

    I enjoyed my sojourn in the Green Oaks Shopping Centre, wilfully perverse as this may seem. Is it possible to be in such a place and not wonder where the concealed doors lead? Or to spy a gantry through a skylight and not imagine the view from the top? I was grateful for the chance to partake of these forbidden pleasures vicariously.

    But there is a deeply underscored message to this book, which didn’t entirely pass me by… The shopping centre is built on the ruins of our manufacturing heritage. It sucks the life out of the community. At its very heart lies a child sacrifice, harshly illuminating consumerism as an uncaring god.

  7. michelebbc

     /  January 21, 2009

    I was sorry to miss the meeting as I really loved this book. It stayed with me for some time after I’d finished it.

    I thought it was different and refreshing. Logically it shouldn’t have worked as it seemed to be trying to be different things, crime fiction, social comment, nick hornby style comedy, tragedy. But it all just felt right.

    I struggled a little with the first couple of chapters as I thought it was going to turn out to be another book aimed at teenagers but even so soon became interested in the character of Kate.

    I thought even the smallest characters were so well written I instantly identified with them. Loved the descriptions of the staff and customers in the music shop, the guy coming in for his tape every week with his bus pass stuck to his hat and the way Lisa is so desperate not to look at it, and the efforts of Kurt to avoid having to listen to another of Gavins monologues on about the shopping centre.

    I particularly liked the way Lisa describes what is going on inside her head and the thoughts she has and how they have changed over the years – not something you see written about often even though we all do it. I was also interested in the story line of the effect the shopping centre had on the local community considering what could happen to Belper in the future!

    I thought it was quite original and fresh and would definitely look out for anything else by her.


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