A lot of things are lost in Catherine O’Flynn‘s debut novel What was lost (Tindal Street, 2007), not least the Midland’s engineering heritage. Set mostly in Green Oaks, a modern shopping centre, wasted lives, obsession, lost souls and disappointment crop up all over the place.
What was lost is full of good ideas but they don’t quite gel together satisfactorily. Embracing comedy and tragedy, it hints at genres – a ghost on the CCTV, a major unsolved crime at its heart, a child’s diary, urban romance – that never quite add up to a coherent whole. This is a shame, because there is much of promise going on here. I wasn’t the only one of our Book Group who had to actually turn back to the opening chapters to confirm what seemed to be just tacked on at the end, which was only the core irony around which the important mystery element of the novel revolves and is resolved by.
So, What was lost is the sort of novel the phrase “it’s a curate’s egg” was made for. It’s good enough to conjure up thoughts of Charles Dickens and what he would have made of the modern retail complex – the openings of Bleak House and A tale of two cities spring to mind, just for starters. It doesn’t happen, though. While convincing in some aspects – particularly the depiction of days in the life of Green Oaks, in the malls and behind the scenes – What was lost fails in others, particularly the main male characters most of the time. Apart from a 10-year old girl who disappears in 1984 – the opening section of the book is her infectious aspiring detective Adrian Mole-style diary – and the deputy manager of a music store in Green Oaks in 2003, the woman whose experience parallels, presumably, that of the author’s before she got out, no-one else exactly has a life off of the page. This makes a change, of course, from women saying that men can’t do women characters.
There’s an energy at play that strikes me as fairly typical of both provincial publishing and first novels, but which is also typically prone to simply trying too hard. So:
Kate was frightened of dogs, though as she’d been bitten eleven times she couldn’t see that it was an irrational fear.
Eleven times? Then there’s her latest research project with her 60-year-old statistician dad (another story):
This week’s had been a wide-ranging Which-style report on pear drops. Kate and her father shared a passion for them and had visited fifteen different sweet shops to compare size, sugar coating (or smooth), price per quarter pound, degree of acidity.
Fifteen – even in 1984? Having said that, I find that most of the passages I have bookmarked are positive sparks, showing enough invention to make me interested in the author’s later work. And the increasingly undisciplined and bitter blind shopper reports tagged on to some chapters certainly made me laugh. Anyway …
There’s lovelorn Kurt, festering in the Green Oaks’ security team, keeping his old live-in girlfriends’ letters and bank statements, who still “curated the collection, though he didn’t know who for” – as desolate a short passage as you can find this side of poetry, for love had died a while before she literally did. Lisa in the record store’s ending of her relationship with her slacker partner is nicely done too, after this bit of self-revelation:
It occurred to her that she felt the same about Ed as she did about her job – a kind of numbed acceptance. She thought how rarely you saw the words ‘numb’ and ‘acceptance’ on Valentine cards, and thought maybe she’d buy one for once if they widened their vocabulary a little.
The passages describing various goings on in the shop are particularly rich in nuance. “Freddie Mercury was assuring everyone that they were champions. Lisa and the lost guy knew differently“; meanwhile the cramped staff room is littered with “Kentucky Fried detritus …”; back in the shop, record store nostalgics will recognise the Classical Department:
Sealed off behind its glass doors, with fake walnut walls, leather armchairs and soft music playing, the department gave the impression of a refuge. Somewhere to soothe the jangled nerves after a day spent on the singles counter. It was, however, a false impression. The truth was that the Classical Department was hell in a box.
The other departments attracted the odd eccentric, the occasional trying customer, but Classical drew the elite like some powerful catnip emitting its scent across the city.
One of our Book Group attested to – having recently been (commendably) doing some charity Christmas present wrapping in Milton Keynes shopping centre, she had had access to the bleak breeze blocked corridors and back-runs behind the shiny scenes of one of Mammon’s showpieces – What was lost‘s description of what it called the keenly felt “apartheid” of the shoppers’ and staff’s experience of such places. This book has enough going for it to make one’s occasional wanderings in those marbled boulevards never feel quite the same again.
Musical adventures …
… so old they are practically ancient history. But worth recording.
Early December Vaultage saw Woburn singer songwriter Steve Gifford’s set increasingly strident from delicate picking beginnings, while The Fabulators (well, two guitarists therefrom) started with a storming Sweet home Chicago and proceeded to deliver an eclectic bunch of covers ranging from Teenage dirtbag (evoking memories of a friend’s dismay at her sub-teen daughter’s ability to sing along to Wheatus word-perfect on the radio) to Ace of spades, and beyond. The Bogoff Brothers also performed after much discussion as to what they were going to call themselves. The more literary option of The Brothers Bogoff, after Dostoyevsky, was considered, but rejected in the light of their country-heavy repertoire. That’s them on the other poster.
The last Aortas open mic at the Old George was a bit special with the cream of the usual crop: Dan Plews himself, of course, and others including Mark, Naomi, and Pat ‘the Hat’ Nicholson – the best I’ve seen him (he put it down to DADGAD tuning, starting with Dylan’s lilting Tomorrow is a long time). Hey, not forgetting an early bonus of Roddy Clenaghan’s dulcet tones not often heard here. And a solo David Cattermole hitting his effortlessly spellbinding groove: somehow simultaneously relaxed and driving, hinting at revelation. He joined Dan for a triumphant Heard it through the grapevine to finish the evening off.
The Christmas Eve Eve Vaultage – in a crowded Vaults Bar – was a splendid affair too, graced as it was with (it’s that man again) the David Cattermole Band, on this evening comprising Tom on cajon and another Dave contributing some beautifully lyrical phrasing of the alto saxophone; his first appearance in public for nearly two decades apparently – not that it showed. We were treated to the extended Can’t find my way home among other delights. Earlier the – I guess – creative heart of accomplished new young sort of folky-soul band, Reeds, impressed with some originals and then had us grinning and singing along to I wanna be like you from Jungle Book.
Meanwhile, on telly …
… an extraordinarily intense and exciting sequence of music contained in one of those BBC4 historical compilation programmes that are usually littered with stuff you never liked in the first place (step forward among others in this instance in particular Argent’s God gave rock and roll to you – as if). I speak of Old Grey Whistle Test; ’70s Gold. With its golden core of Bob Marley and the Wailers‘ Concrete jungle followed by the magnificent Captain Beefheart (that triumphant grin!) & the Magic Band’s Upon the My O My; then with only a slight hiatus of (only) Johnny Winter’s relentlessly energetic take on Born in a crossfire hurricane, we got a full-blown full-on Roxette from Dr Feelgood, followed by the (ditto) Patti Smith Group doing great justice to Horses. Stirred a few cockles, I can tell you.
As it happens, the good Captain puts in a redundant appearance in What was lost, the book we started with. The ultimately tragic Adrian, back from uni and with no great plans, plays the Lick my decals off album when he’s helping in the newsagents owned by his dad near where his young friend Kate lives, in an attempt to musically educate the punters; even she has her doubts. A world in which Captain Beefheart is mainstream; now that’s an alternative reality.