Monkey Puzzle

Not only did I finish one book since I finished revising my prelims, but I finished a second! Incroyable, as the French might say. So here’s my review, without further ado, of What Was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn. This wasn’t on any list I had, it was just a completely random pluck from the shelf in Memorial Library and I’m glad I plucked it because it was pretty plucking fantastic.

What Was Lost, the debut novel by Catherine O’Flynn, is a mystery straddling the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, developing exciting storylines while commenting on urban blight (it is not, though, urban fantasy). We start in 1984, through the eyes of 10-year-old Kate Meaney, an aspiring detective, as she roams around Birmingham with her partner Mickey (a stuffed monkey) looking for crimes and adventure. She has a friend in 22-year-old Adrian, a local shop worker, and the people around her find it quite strange. One day, Adrian sees Kate off on a bus to take an entrance exam at a boarding school…and Kate is never seen again. After being hounded by the press, Adrian disappears as well.

Fast forward to 2004. Kurt, a security guard at the dying Green Oaks Mall, is manning the cameras one night when he sees the image of a little girl on the screen, holding a backpack, notebook, and toy monkey. He never finds the little girl again, but he does encounter Lisa, who works at one of the stores in the mall, who randomly found the stuffed monkey toy in a crevice in the wall. The two become friends, and after Kurt shares his mysterious sighting on the camera, Lisa shares that her brother, Adrian, disappeared twenty years ago, after the disappearance of Kate, who a) owned a toy monkey, b) regularly hung out at what is now Green Oaks, and c) may have been there on the day of her disappearance. Obviously, the girl Kurt saw on the camera wasn’t Kate, but it does bring some attention back to her disappearance, leading to more clues, unexpected arrivals, and ultimately, the fate of Kate.

O’Flynn’s writing style is very natural and flows well, it’s a page-turner both in form and content. Unlike the book I reviewed two posts ago (The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters by Timothy Schaffert), this was a book where I could skim here and there without missing anything major. Although I was much more interested in the Kate story line than the Kurt/Lisa story line, seeing these two disillusioned, unhappy retail workers find the answers to a long-forgotten urban mystery, little by little, made me want to keep reading. It’s also a rather slim volume, at around 150 pages; an easy read on a bus, train, or plane ride.

Some of the things that I found off about the book were the random asides, and Kurt’s involvement in the whole thing. Kurt is the first character we meet in the 2004 section of the book, and he really has no connection to Kate whatsoever, but randomly happens to see a girl (or so he thinks) who matches Kate’s description, even though it’s obviously not Kate, because she would be 30 years old by then. After meeting Lisa, who has an actual connection to Kate and Adrian, it just seems like a strange coincidence that he’d report seeing someone who looked like Kate despite a) never having met her before, b) not knowing what she looked like, or that she owned a notebook and a monkey toy, and c) never even knowing of her existence before Lisa entered the picture. Then, there are random asides in italics at certain points, by “Mystery Shopper” or “Shop Customer” that don’t seem to add a lot to the plot, other than giving some more establishing imagery/context, but ultimately, they don’t have names and there’s no real consistency to them.

I think that the book had some decent messages, especially considering the title, What Was Lost. Obviously, Kate and Adrian are physically missing, but in a way, it also describes the bleak existences of Kurt and Lisa who are trapped in retail hell at a dying mall, and the other characters too, including the ones who have no names but comment on the goings-on of the mall. On the whole, it’s an homage to turn-of-the-century urban ennui, adding a little bit of mystery through a quirky 10-year-old wannabe detective. I’m really glad I picked it up and I’ve already gone back to get another of O’Flynn’s books.

This book review was brought to you by my cold being over, but the rest of me not quite ready to return to normal life yet.

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