Thursday, August 23, 2007

missing in action

What Was Lost is another novel split in two by time and shared between joint narrators. This time history is 1984 contrasted with 2003 and all narrators have four letter names, Kate, Kurt and Lisa. Packed with timely cultural references, it’s a very modern novel and a very British one at that. Easy to read while being well written and tightly plotted - every character has a purpose and all loose ends are neatly tied by the end.

The standout of this novel is the tone of the writing, which is almost exclusively one of ironic observation. O’Flynn handles this tones very well, and for the most part it is genuinely amusing.

‘The school had already had a talk from a boy with one foot who had lost the other playing on the railway tracks. Kate had a gruesome image of teachers from competing schools bidding for injured children at the local hospital and ascribing a range of childhood misdemeanours to them, ‘I’ve got a paraplegic little girl here, ideal for stamping out leaning back on chairs.’ ‘This almost-blind boy, ideal for carrot promotion.’

But while this view of life works well for the jaded adults working in the Green Oaks shopping centre at times it seems a little overly knowing in the hands of the ten year old Kate. The comic tone also weighs heavily as one reads deeper into the novel, and realises that every character carries a burden of loss. In the face of more than an average share of damaged lives it starts to ring with a note of desperation, and the laughs turn to wheezes.

O’Flynn centres her novel on the watchers and the watched. Contrasting Kate with her detective notebook and monkey sidekick with the latter day 24/7 CCTV. She shows that however much we watch we always seem to be looking away at the wrong moment, and people slip through those holes.

‘Patches of scorched earth almost bleached white by the constant surveillance of so many different eyes.’

At one point in the novel the characters say they feel like subjects in a nature documentary and I felt that the novel as a whole tended to this. An overdose of minutiae, I wanted to draw back and look at the bigger picture. Up close people look alien and strange, whereas with distance people have a chance to assume a normal balanced form, with some of their misery not quite so glaring.

O’Flynn show great strength when giving straight faced descriptions of sadness and loss,

‘The climbing frame was a tubular metal igloo. The metal had rusted in parts and when the wind blew, as it did today, the rushing air found empty screw holes and fissures in the frame and played a sad tune on the pipes.’

I hope in future writing Catherine O’Flynn feels brave enough to dive into the deep end of the misery pool and less impelled to make us laugh because for me its her bleakest writing that is her best.

1 comment:

Stewart said...

Yes, bleak is best. Didn't hink much of the book myself. In fact, I've read three of the four women now and haven't been overly impressed at all. It's all on Nicola Barker now to score a thumbs up for the girls.

Also, can you change the booklit link to the new blog address? Thanks.