Frank Allcroft is a presenter on a regional English news program based in Birmingham and this novel is, in a roundabout way, his story. He is married to Andrea, has a 12 year-old daughter, Mo, whom he adores, has recently lost his best friend in a hit and run accident and struggles to let go of the past. This manifests itself in little ways, such as his inability to throw away even the most unfashionable clothing items lurking in his wardrobe, and bigger ways too as he campaigns to save the buildings his architect father built in the city’s post-war boom which are now being pulled down for a new era’s landmarks. Frank is also becoming interested in (or obsessed with depending on your point of view) the people he reports on who die alone and even attends some of their funerals. This habit leads Frank to become an investigator of sorts as he attempts to unearth some family or friends of a particular man who died alone who has a connection, albeit vague, to Frank himself.
I loved this book (almost as much as O’Flynn’s first novel What Was Lost which I read earlier this year). It somehow manages to be sad without being unrelentingly depressing and so was a delight to read, unlike some other books I’ve read recently which just seem to wallow in a single tone of unending misery. Like most lives I suppose Frank’s has its ups and downs and we are exposed to both. His relationship with his father was distant due to his father’s obsession with his work and his enduring legacy for the city but to counterbalance this we also see that he had a good relationship with his mother, especially on her good days when they would have absurd tea parties and other fun. His mother is still alive and is in an assisted living centre as this book opens, which also offers scope for a mixture of sadness and humour. In the end I thought I had a terrifically well-rounded picture of Frank and his foibles and if he does not inspire love I think most readers will like and identify with some aspects of his life. The other characterisations, though not as fully-formed, are equally engaging and thoughtful. Frank’s friend Phil is one of the most beautifully drawn but saddest people I have ever met in fiction.
The story seems like it will be a simple one at the outset but there is a complexity in the way that it tackles a range of contemporary issues. One of these is society’s (or at least media’s) obsession with appearances over substance. This is beautifully observed via the inclusion of a reality television show called Tough Love which is hosted by Frank’s friend’s widow and which his daughter adores. Some of the saddest moments of the book take place as a manipulative episode is dissected before us, but O’Flynn offsets this by incorporating a warm humour into the thread with Mo’s innocent misinterpretation of some aspects of reality television. The dumbing-down of televised news is also explored, offering a couple of genuinely laugh-out-loud moments in addition to the overall bitterness that viewers (and even presenters) are treated like simpletons in these unenlightened times. The nature of ageing and the constant tension between remembering the past while looking forward at both a personal and social level are other subjects drawn out as part of this gentle but quite powerful story.
I’m not sure what the rules are for deciding a writer is a ‘favourite’ but if it’s permissible to do so based on only two books then Catherine O’Flynn is definitely a new favourite author of mine. Having adored her first book, What Was Lost , only a few months ago I wanted to wait longer before jumping into this second novel but a few days ago I found myself in something of a melancholy frame of mind and seemingly irresistibly drawn to the book. I am now equally thrilled to have read it and sad that I don’t still have it to look forward to. It has a strong sense of its place and time, very natural-feeling characters who leap off the page and a very accessible but intelligent writing style and I highly recommend it. If you happen to be a fan of audio books you will enjoy Michael Tudor Barnes’ excellent narration which matches the warmth and sadness of the novel in exactly the right way.
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My rating 4.5/5
Narrator Michael Tudor Barnes
Publisher ISIS Audio books 
Length8 hours 20 minutes
Format audio (CD)
Book Series standalone
Source I borrowed it from the library