Catherine O'Flynn's debut novel won the Costa first novel award and made the short and longlists of several other prizes so I was expecting good things. I wasn't disappointed: What Was Lost is a poignant, funny and entertaining book about loneliness and the way we are shaped by the past.
The novel has an unusual structure, with the first third forming an extended prologue. Set in 1984 it introduces us to Kate Meaney, a young girl who has started a detective agency with her toy monkey. The narrative then shifts 20 years forward to focus on Lisa, the deputy manager of a record shop, and Kurt, who is a security guard in the shopping centre where Lisa works. Kate has been missing for 20 years and her disappearance had a profound effect on the lives of both characters.
O'Flynn's inexperience is obvious in a few places. Her observations, though frequently witty and astute, are often a little obvious, like the banal 'have you ever noticed...' gags of a mediocre stand-up comic. There are a few too many coincidences in the story's conclusion, too.
However, her portrayal of a shopping centre as a slightly menacing and unnatural centre of gravity in modern Britain is very good indeed, head and shoulders above JG Ballard's efforts with the same themes in Kingdom Come, for example. She's at her most effective when she leaves the real emotions unspoken, sitting below the surface, almost heartbreakingly out of reach.
I look forward to reading whatever she does next.