What Was Lost starts with a very bold move - a narrative told by a small girl who works as a private detective, helped by her cuddly monkey Mickey. It is a brave writer indeed who starts with such a ridiculous premise. But Catherine O'Flynn pulls it off and as the first section develops, it becomes clear that the girl - Kate Meaney - has a troubled homelife and a burning desire to escape it. She duly spends time engaged in surveillance at Green Oaks, the newly built shopping centre.
Then, in a sudden jump of twenty years, the narrative focuses on Lisa, the duty manager at a record store in Green Oaks. It becomes clear that Kate disappeared all those years ago, and whilst she has been largely forgotten, she has started to haunt the memories of those few people to have noticed her in her last days. Self evidently, the narrative eventually reveals Kate's fate.
The star of the show, though, is Green Oaks itself. Shopping centres are brilliant places (like airports). Shiny and colourful on the public side, but with a hidden belly of service corridors, stockrooms, offices, security systems and such like. They have a ready made cast, both of people working there or people passing through: customers, thieves, drifters, lunatics... Some chapters end with rather brilliant - and irrelevant - monologues from some of those who spend time in and around the shopping centre. A particular gem is the mystery shopper. Then there are also the dialogues between staff and challenging customers - for example, the chap who has had a classical music cassette on order for 23 months and has been strung along by the store assistant just for fun. This element of the novel plays like a Magnus Mills work - utterly deadpan in the absurdity of the situation. For all the characters in What Was Lost, the shopping centre is more than a place to shop - it has seized their lives.
The plot and character development play second fiddle to the daily soap opera of Green Oaks. The character development in particular is not as strong in the present day narrative than in the 1984 element. Kate Meaney, Adrian and Teresa come through with precision and clarity, even though they are largely confined to the first 60 or so pages. Lisa, Kurt, Gavin et al don't seem to have such strong characterization. Perhaps the action got in the way. And purists could, doubtless, complain that there is too much reliance on coincidence. But that would be curmudgeonly.
Overall, though, this is a hugely enjoyable, satirical look at the life of a shopping centre, with a good dose of creepy mystery thrown in. It is well written and beautifully timed. What was lost is a classy piece of writing that deserves the prize nominations it has received.