Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Crossover Book Review: What Was Lost, by Catherine O'Flynn

Recently I complained about the adult fiction I've been reading
. I kvetched about my weariness with the 20th century anti-hero. In brief, I'm tired of the over-educated, New York-living male hero who is alienated from his family and from the world.* Susan, of Chicken Spaghetti, recommended What Was Lost, a first novel by Catherine O'Flynn, and not only did I find What Was Lost a fantastic and restorative read, but I also think it is a book teenagers will enjoy as well.

What Was Lost is a novel no less ambitious than any of the top-10 New York Times reviewed novels of 2007 or 2008. Catherine O'Flynn uses many protagonists to tell her tale, most prominent among them a 10-year-old girl and two mall employees--all from Birmingham.# The novel opens in the voice of Kate Meany, 10-year-old girl detective. Kate is an orphan and she spends her days watching people in the shops and at Green Oaks--a new shopping center. She's sure she's about to catch a criminal in the act when she disappears.

The narration then skips forward twenty five years and is primarily in the voices of Kurt, a Green Oaks security guard, and Lisa, a manager at the mall's music store. Lisa has a connection to Kate: Her elder brother Adrian was a friend and mentor to Kate at the time Kate disappeared. Kate's disappearance leads, of course, to Adrian's own hiding, even though he was innocent. Kurt also has a connection to Kate, although he doesn't remember it at first. He saw Kate, on her last day in Birmingham, when he was about her own age. Kurt doesn't remember his sighting until a series of hallucinations visit him when working at the mall in the middle of the night.

What Was Lost is ostensibly a mystery--how and why did Kate Meany disappear? But it's also the story of finding your way when you're a young adult stuck in the soulless world of a suburban mall. Will Lisa be able to dump her manager's job at Your Music and her even lamer boyfriend Eric? Will Kurt be able to come to terms with his father--who hated the mall, but worked there as a janitor because there were no other jobs left for him in the city--and move on? These are real questions ninety percent of the reading public face and Catherine O'Flynn presents them with humor, grace, and intelligence.

But let's not forget our heroine who opens the story. Kate Meany, girl detective, is quite possibly the most authentic 10-year-old girl I've read in years. She's smart, vulnerable, naive, and believes in truth and justice, even in her run-down neighborhood in Birmingham. Children like Kate, who have nothing, always have hope--hope Kurt and Lisa have lost, but must find again in order to remake their lives.

I highly recommend What Was Lost to all readers ages twelve and up. Tweens and teens will be drawn to Kate's story, and the multiple points of view will challenge them. Anyone who has ever worked a dead-end job in a mall will recognize Kate's world. What Was Lost is a not-to-be-missed novel.

Thank you, Catherine O'Flynn, for restoring my faith in the "literary" novel.

* Seriously, novelists: Stop this.
# Did you hear me? TWO MALL EMPLOYEES. They have lives too! Who would have known?