Review: What Was Lost

I remember seeing this book in the store, taking it down fom the shelf (because of the awesome cover), and then putting it back dismissively- I have no idea why! A couple of weeks ago I checked it out from the library (although this cover is boring), and started reading it immediately on the way home. Sometimes my reading habits are a mystery even to myself.


In the 1980s, Kate Meaney—“Top Secret” notebook and toy monkey in tow—is hard at work as a junior detective. Busy trailing “suspects” and carefully observing everything around her at the newly opened Green Oaks shopping mall, she forms an unlikely friendship with Adrian, the son of a local shopkeeper. But when this curious, independent-spirited young girl disappears, Adrian falls under suspicion and is hounded out of his home by the press.Then, in 2003, Adrian’s sister Lisa—stuck in a dead-end relationship—is working as a manager at Your Music, a discount record store. Every day she tears her hair out at the outrageous behavior of her customers and colleagues. But along with a security guard, Kurt, she becomes entranced by the little girl glimpsed on the mall’s surveillance cameras. As their after-hours friendship intensifies, Lisa and Kurt investigate how these sightings might be connected to the unsettling history of Green Oaks itself. (

This is a beautiful, sad and wonderful book. Kate is such a likable and real character that I could not help but be drawn into her story, although I knew that she would disappear. Because of that, finding out about Kate´s fate, and what was lost, hurt. That´s how talented this author is.

The novel centers around the new shopping mall Green Oaks and how it changes and influences the lives of the people in Birmingham. It seems to draw lost people, like Kate and Kurt and Lisa. I´ve read some reviews about how the dreariness of malls is over the top in this book, but I don´t agree with that. O´Flynn shows how people can be lonely in places full of other people, how communication goes wrong, and how some try to ease loneliness with consumerism. The edition I read also included a short essay of the author wherein she explains that she took the advice commonly given to writers, to write about what they know. O´Flynn is from Birmingham and has worked in a mall, and had experiences like Lisa.

What Was Lost is a great mix of mystery, child detective fiction and social commentary. Something I really enjoyed about this book was the structure. It is divided into two alternating timelines, beginning with Kate´s story in 1984 and ending with her new friend Teresa´s story in 2004.

Some of my favorite passages:

“On her first day in Mrs. Finnegan´s class, Kate had made the extremely difficult decision to wet herself rather than ask Mrs. Finnegan if she could go to the toilet. Five years of hearing the screaming fury of Mrs. Finnegan  echo down corridors had helped Kate make this decision.” (23)

Every day Mrs. Finnegan said, “Good morning, children,” and managed to imbue this simple greeting with so many layers of  meaning, taunt, and bitterness that it could make Kate feel sick.” (23)

The wind blew her faster as she leaped down the slope and ran and ran. She felt unbreakable as she raced past the shattered glass of the bus stop, over the landscaped undulations of the housing development, and through the deserted quadrangle.” (32)

Green Oaks was not a pleasant place to work. In 1997 the management team, in accordance with the strategic business objectives (. . .), sent out their first annual questionnaire to ascertain working conditions for their nine thousand employees. It revealed levels of dissatisfaction so consistent and so acute that, unknown to its subjects, it later went on to become a case study for undergraduate sociologists.” (89)

So he knew there was rarely a eureka moment with memory. For him it was more like a slow archaelogical dig.” (165)

It occured to her that she felt the same about Ed as she did about her job- a kind of numbed acceptance.” (178)

It seemed to her now that back then they had burned like the sun- so much light and energy that nothing and no one would be able to extinguish tem.” (233)

This is a novel I can´t recommend enough. In case you´re not convinced, go read an excerpt.

3 thoughts on “Review: What Was Lost

  1. Nice review! The book looks interesting! Will look for it.

    I liked all your favourite lines, especially the ones about the eureka moment and the archaelogical dig, Ed and her job and burning like the sun.

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