The last thing I want to read is books about little girls who disappear, so I was surprised, when I started What was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn, to learn that its main subject is a little girl who vanishes. I can't remember what prompted me to add this book to my list, but I'm glad that I did. First of all, the disappearance; I can't say too much without spoiling the book, but I will say it's not what you think. Not that it's happy. Kate Meaney doesn't fly over the rainbow to live with the munchkins, which is really all I can say.
The first part of the book is told from Kate's perspective. It's 1984 in Birmingham, England and Kate is ten years old and obsessed with surveillance. She's especially interested watching potentially nefarious activity at the new Green Oaks Shopping center. When Kate vanishes, after not turning up to take a private school entrance exam, the last man she was seen with, her friend Adrian, is suspect. Why is a twenty-two year old man friends with a ten-year old girl?
The story then skips ahead twenty years and focuses on Lisa, Adrian's younger sister, and Kurt, a security guard at the Green Oaks Shopping Center. Kurt sees a mysterious little girl in the security cameras at the mall and sets out to find her. Lisa works as an assistant manager in a corporate music vendor at the mall and she and Kurt search together for the girl.
What was Lost is not just about the loss of one little girl, but about the losses of those who are connected to her: Adrian's loss of life as he knew it, Lisa's loss of her brother, Kurt's loss of his father and his wife, Birmingham itself whose bleak industrial past is being sanitized and buried under further expansions of Green Oaks, and the loss of a way of life as the shopping center replaces the local businesses and former middle class neighborhoods decay.
Why should you read this book? Because Kate Meaney is such an appealing character. Somehow, despite knowing that there is no happy ending for her you don't feel too concerned. Kate is firmly in control of her own destiny and not a victim. There are also the insightful and funny observations about retail culture in the modern world: the corporate monsters that own the shops and the mall itself, the mall staff and their antagonistic relationship with the customers, the bovine nature of the shoppers themselves, contrasted with achingly painful monologues from anonymous people who visit Green Oaks. If you ever worked in retail, or felt oppressed by the palpable corruption in a modern shopping mall, then you will enjoy What was Lost.