Review: What Was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn

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

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22 Responses to Review: What Was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn

  1. Oh this goes on my audio book list for sure. I wanted to read it for a while so glad to hear the audio was good as well. Nice review.

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  2. Bernadette – A superb review of a superb book. I am so very glad you loved this book as much as you did. It is such a moving book, isn’t it? I could go on an on about it, too, but I won’t. Folks please, listen to Bernadette. If you haven’t read What Was Lost, read it.

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  3. @Diane I hope you enjoy it too, Collen Prendergast is a terrific narrator, I listened to her read Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands which was one of my top reads of last year.

    @Margot, thanks for the kind words. I feel like I didn’t really scratch the surface but I always feel like that when I’ve really loved a book.

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  4. Dorte H says:

    Oh no, my poor, sagging TBR!

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  5. Maxine says:

    Thank you for reminding me about such a wonderful, sad book. I am so glad you liked it so much – I, too, had a very strong response to it. The “solution” worked so well also – very tragic but also very much in keeping with the understated realism of the novel (as opposed to the more heated norm of crime fiction). This is a superb novel, you are so right. I have relatively recently read her second novel, The News Where You Are, and though it lacks the tragic elements of What Was Lost, it is a sad (yet humorous) novel that is full of telling little observations and persists in my memory. Thanks again for a wonderful review, Bernadette. (And note that WordPress, unlike Blogger, has not been known to eat any of my long comments – or even short ones!)

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  6. BooksPlease says:

    I always find it difficult to write a book I’ve loved as well. It often seems as though I’m going over the top, but you haven’t done that. You have succeeded in making want to read this book – your rating of 5/5 alone means a lot to me.

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  7. Belle Wong says:

    You are very persuasive, Bernadette! I went straight to my library’s overdrive site, found it available, added it to my cart and am now downloading the audio version 🙂 I have been hankering for a new listen. Plus, I really like the shorter length.

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  8. @Maxine I am already scouring my normal haunts for that second book of hers…she seems like someone whose work I will want to read all of. Probably something to do with making her first character a junior detective…I was one myself (maybe will write about that on the blog…this book really had memories flooding back).

    I hope the rest of you do enjoy it too if you manage to get your hands on it…@Belle it’s wonderful when you can get your hands (or ears) straight onto a book you’ve just read about…Enjoy

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  9. kathy durkin says:

    I read “What Was Lost,” a few years ago and liked it as much as you do, not only for the story about Kate, but because it depicted well the sad, empty lives of those who work at the shopping center, whom at times I wanted to tell to go do something meaningful with their lives.
    Yes, it is an excellent book, although sad. It was short-listed for several prizes.
    I will look for O’Flynn’s second book.
    And, yes, she did work in retail; she was the manager of a record store. And, in terms of dealing with the public, she also was a postal worker, too. So she understands the issues here well.

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  16. Chad Hull says:

    Hello. I found my way here thanks to Kim from ReadingMatters.

    I too am cursed with a demon that makes it hard to competently talk about the books I like best. I thought you did very well. Also, I completely agree with your comment concerning book length. So many times I feel authors dilute the quality of their writing by trying too hard; though ultimately I’m not sure if that is the fault of the author or editor or whoever…

    This book has a really strong title, for what it’s worth.

    A great post. I look forward to checking out the book.

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  17. Parrish says:

    this sounds a great read, although not a big fan of audio-books (the voices annoy after a while) will check out a different version.
    thanks.

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  21. janebbooks says:

    Bernadette, I hope you are still reading replies to this wonderful book. WHAT WAS LOST by Catherine O’Flynn. It is beautiful…wonderful…mesmerizing.

    It’s now January 2012 and I’m watching the Serb play the Scotsman at the 2012 Australian Open. I started O’Flynn’s book this morning. It was difficult to put it down. Good, the Serb won and I have another hour or so to read.

    Thanks so much for recommending the book.

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    • So glad you are enjoying it Jane…so sad and funny at the same time.

      I’m afraid I’m more of a cricket fan than tennis and there is a major test match (5-day cricket match) happening at the moment so I’m watching that rather than the tennis, but glad you’re enjoying that too

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