Sunday, 19 August 2007

Catherine O'Flynn. What Was Lost

Modern shopping centres are anodyne, artificial shrines dedicated to the modern anodyne, artificial god of consumerism. Catherine O’Flynn’s achievement in What was Lost is taking this idea, and really running with it, creating an entire way of life within her centre, Green Oaks, a way of life that is complete with its own missing child at its core. Early in my reading I found myself wondering, does Western religion need a child sacrifice to get it going? The Celts threw heads down wells, the Jews escaped to Israel after the Passover, Christians have their god child grown to early adulthood and nailed to a cross. Shopping centres have their childminding centres and their posters asking for information about the return of Madeleine McCann or whatever her name is in the current year’s incarnation. In Green Oaks her name is Kate and her disappearance has taken on a particularly poignancy because in 21 years, she has never been found.

Architect turned crime novelist Barry Maitland uses a shopping centre in one of his crime novels, Silvermeadow, exploring its brooding and menacing qualities, the sense of its secrets, perhaps to greater effect. But O’Flynn has still achieved something interesting here. As she describes, real lives do happen in these artificial places. Here, people love, fight, suffer. Romances are born and die, teenaged gangs are rebels without causes racing with shopping trolleys on the car park roofs. We are so familiar with shopping centres, with the music that is piped in, with the scents of exotic soaps and hot chips, with advertising that reaches us through the television and radio at home, summonsing us there, that is thrown at us as soon as we arrive, telling us what we need, that if we have these jeans from River Island we will be happy, that buying body butter from the Body Shop makes us better people, that we really need a second, or third, mobile phone, that we don’t always consider how eerie the places can be. O’Flynn defamiliarises the place and does it well. Shopping, we are watched. Ghosts of times past linger, putting in a few appearances that may or may not be real, and that show O’Flynn’s knowledge of the concept of the uncanny as the ‘return of the repressed’ – secrets are repressed here, stored, you soon come to realise, as though relics in the shrine.

The novel starts with the disappearance of a lonely young girl (her loneliness and fight against it is drawn with real pathos – you can tell this is a first novel when the author loses her nerve just once (p16) and says how lonely she is. A more experienced writer would perhaps have trusted her readers more) in the early 1980s. The lost girl is named Kate, so even more than is usual with first time novels, you wonder how much she can be identified with the person of the author, Catherine. Kate lives with her grandmother, maintaining some sort of contact with her dead father through living out the fantasy girl-detective life that just happens to have been the subject of the last book he gave her. The next part of the story is in the current century. Kate herself turns out to have provided the biggest mystery of all. There is something that we all lose as we grow up and that’s our childhood. In this novel, the shopping centre itself is about to turn 21 and has developed into a sinister character in its own right, with secrets of its own.

It’s a novel about loss and endings. Fathers die, children vanish, relationship after relationship fades to a ghost of its former passion and falls away. New ones are forged but with no sense of optimism, borne more of shared guilt and grief than anything else. Perhaps most frustrating is the conclusion, where all is explained away as if O’Flynn is paying more attention to tying up her loose ends than to providing us with something substantial to ponder. That there is something of a twist is no spoiler, because it doesn’t work and further than that, you soon realise that earlier unsuccessful sections are included to pave the path to this weak point. Joan Lindsay’s Australian classic about missing children, Picnic at Hanging Rock was famously published without its final chapter. Decades later a version of that final chapter was finally revealed and readers could see the point of leaving it out. This novel, too, would have been better without explanations that make the merely concrete out of interesting ideas readers have been able to have for themselves. It is not a great novel and I will be astonished if it is shortlisted for the Booker Prize (it has recently been longlisted). But it is a very good one and well worth reading.

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