This is my favourite book of the year so far. It’s a bit early to tell but I suspect it will be hard to beat for the rest of the year. It might even be my favourite book of the decade. Or the century. Or …you know…of forever.
It is I suppose one of life’s cruel ironies that the books I love most are the ones I find it most difficult to write about. I have even wondered if there is something sinister at work in my subconscious. Do I perhaps not want to explain it properly so that I won’t tempt you to read it too and then I can keep all its luscious wonderfulness to myself? Honestly I don’t know the answer to that (and I daren’t go near a psychiatrist to find out) but I’ll try to tempt you to read it in spite of my evil other self.
The first part of the tale introduces us to 10 year-old Kate Meaney. It is 1984 and Kate lives in Birmingham in England, has recently opened her own detective agency and even received her first commission (to investigate sweet pilfering at the local newsagent’s). Her trainee partner is Mickey, a stitched monkey wearing a pin-striped gangster suit and spats who travels in a canvas army surplus bag. We are given details of Kate’s day-to-day life (school, home, her surveillance work, how she would advertise her agency on the bus etc) which might sound dull but I was utterly gripped from the beginning. Although there is sadness in Kate’s life it never overwhelms her because she is so dedicated to making a go of being a detective, an element of the novel which is portrayed so deftly that as a reader I accepted this rather ludicrous premise without a second thought. I was so absorbed in finding out how the agency, and Kate, would flourish I completely forgot the book was ostensibly crime fiction. Until Kate vanished into thin air.
The next part of the book takes place twenty years later when we meet two new characters. Kurt and Lisa don’t know each other though both work at Green Oaks, a large shopping centre. Kurt is a night-shift security guard and Lisa is a duty manager at a music mega store. Neither of them planned to spend their lives at such work and we slowly learn what has led both of them to be there and we get some insight into their less than fulfilling jobs. Green Oaks is the place where Kate Meaney used to undertake much of her surveillance work and one night Kurt spots a small girl with a stuffed monkey on his CCTV monitor which, eventually, makes him the subject of ridicule by the centre’s staff as they all, including Lisa, hear about his encounter with a phantom. Or was it?
The way the story is told is clever but not too clever if that makes sense. There is tension and suspense but it never goes over the line into melodrama, and the way that the various threads and tangents are drawn together is intelligent, compelling and unpredictable. It was one of those books I took every opportunity to read more of, and ended up being 45 minutes late for work so I could finish it. At the same time as the terrific story unfolds we’re treated to a series of beautiful, funny and astute observations about the people of this part of Birmingham and the horror that is Green Oaks. The encounters that the protagonists all have with the shopping centre’s customers are superbly accurate (it’s clear O’Flynn has worked in retail) and her broader wistfulness at the loss of community that such centres have induced is also evident, though never in a preachy way.
I’m running out of superlatives but the characters are tremendously engaging too. They’re not soppy or sentimental even though all of them have sadness in their lives. This is somehow balanced though by the humour and warmth and what my Aunt Nell would have called pluck so that the reader is not burdened by sadness for them. I have really vivid images of them all in my head, helped I think by Colleen Prendergast’s narration which is outstanding.
Another thing I loved about the book is its length. At 6 hours and 33 minutes the only shorter books of the 112 I’ve listened to since I started keeping track of such things are four Agatha Christie novels and Ken Bruen’s The Dramatist. The reason I mention length is that sometimes I feel like authors are being paid by the kilo for their output with the result that half the words in some books are superfluous, detracting from rather than adding to the reading experience. In this book each word adds something to the whole and not a single one is wasted or unnecessary.
I don’t really feel as if I’ve managed to properly convey what made the book such a rewarding reading experience for me (perhaps evil Bernadette prevails) but I really do hope I’ve tempted you to read one of my new favourite books of all time. And that you enjoy it just as much as I did.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
What Was Lost has been reviewed at Euro Crime,
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
My rating 5/5
Narrator Colleen Prendergast
Publisher ISIS Audio books [this edition 2008, original edition 2007]
ISBN N/A (downloaded from audible.com)
Length 6 hours 33 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series standalone
Source I bought it