When a child vanishes, ghosts follow

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Richard Eder
August 3, 2008

What Was Lost
By Catherine O'Flynn
Holt,246 pp., paperback, $14

Childhood: not just another country or even another planet, but, in Catherine O'Flynn's delicate wilderness of a first novel, a tiny asteroid on collision course with our bloated planet.

"What Was Lost" is oddly and perhaps disconcertingly divided into two parts, widely separated in time. The first, some 60 pages long, is the touching and pungently observed story of a solitary 10-year-old, Kate, who sets herself up as Falcon Investigations. Its entirely self-assigned mission is to spot potential crooks going in and out of the giant Green Oaks shopping mall near her home in the wasteland of contemporary Britain.

The second part, much longer, begins 19 years after Kate disappeared while shadowing a seemingly suspicious man through the mall's service corridors. Her presumed fate pulses an undertone of anguish through a dystopian account of life in the Green Oaks world, at once a symbol of the wasteland and its very agent.

The customers and staff populate a realm of joyless consumerism where the raffish "shop till you drop" turns out to be the gray nakedness of "shopping is dropping." 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.

When she is not doing surveillance, assisted by her stuffed monkey, Kate is in her "office," purposefully blotting out the voices of children outside. She has her routine: 10 recreational minutes scooting her desk chair around the room, then updating her 200-card contact file. Three cards are filled out.

O'Flynn evokes the town's (and Britain's) mall-corroded High Street. The butcher swats flies on his sparse sausages and chops. "The fewer customers Mr. Watkin had, the less meat he stocked; and the less meat he had, the less he looked like a butcher and the more he looked like a crazy old man who collected and displayed bits of flesh in his front window."

She writes of Teresa, Kate's one schoolfriend, a black slum child abused by her stepfather. Wild and original, she shocks her docile classmates: "a small tribal culture whose cosmology is suddenly torn apart by the arrival of a box of cornflakes."

She will reappear at the end as a high-ranking police official to resolve the mystery of her friend's vanishing. Only then do we learn of Kate's astonishing gesture, which 19 years earlier began Teresa's journey out of hopeless poverty, up through university, and into a flourishing career.

The second part of "Lost" presents the surreal, quasi-futuristic nightmare of Green Oaks. A series of vignettes illustrates the garish evil of the place, a hell whose darkness appears as incessant brightness and color. The surging crowds have a "Day of the Locust" quality as they frenetically pursue stuff to buy, as if stuff were oxygen and to acquire it were to breathe.

Deformed fauna appear here and there: the "lift lifter," a man who monopolizes the glass elevator, whizzing up and down and bypassing the stops. A blind man careens about in a motorized wheelchair, mashing customers into the counters.

The clerks, half brutalized and half brainwashed, have their own breakdowns. One beats up a customer, then weeps piteously when his supervisor orders a transfer to hell's hell: a vast stockroom populated by freaks and misfits.

A visiting executive instructs a promotion prospect to be guided by two images. One is a ladder: strive for the next rung up, stamp on anybody one rung down. The other is a helicopter: regard customers and inferiors as if surveilling them from a buzzing circuit high overhead.

O'Flynn contrives two liberations. Kurt, a security guard, and Lisa, a shift supervisor, discover, bit by bit, their own and each other's inextinguishable humanity and, not incidentally, a way out.

Both have dim connections to the long-missing Kate. On a surveillance monitor Kurt spots what seems to be the ghost of a little girl clutching a cloth monkey. Lisa is the sister of a kindly young man who had befriended Kate in her detective games and, briefly suspected in her disappearance, left home and never returned.

The author has evoked her mall world with convincing spookiness. She has created warm and winning portraits of Lisa and Kurt as battlers against the nightmare. There is a touch of the generic in both, and neither has the entrancing, unforgettable edge of Kate and Teresa.

Yet something of the children's lingering edge, and the mystery involved, haunts the mall sections and lends them a bit of their magical specificity. 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 reviews books for several publications.

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