I really wasn’t sold on this when I started reading it. My friend Adi loaned it to me. But by the time I finished the first page I was absorbed, which is something every author yearns to hear said about his or her novel. This is Catherine O’Flynn’s first book. The key to it—and something I feel I should take away and emulate more in my own work—is the ability to tease out the facts of a story very, very slowly. I tend to rush and get exposition out of the way as soon as I can. In this book, you were left guessing about a number of things here through almost 200 pages. Also noteworthy were O’Flynn’s characters. Not all of them were drawn to the same degree of precision but they were genuinely unforgettable.
It really amused me that I started reading the book on a bus when it opens on a bus. However, I was on a bus to Caswell in 2008, Kate Meaney was on a bus to Green Oaks Shopping Centre outside of Birmingham in 1984 (when I was born, mind you). Kate immediately stole my heart, and I defy anyone to read the first section, set in 1984, and remain unmoved and unamused by this young girl’s pluck, creativity, and the weird sense of adulthood coupled with complete naiveté which she carried around her. A lonely child, there’s no one to really notice when she goes missing. Parts of the book are told as excerpts from her Falcon Investigations notebook, all of them amusingly earnest.
It says in the back of the book that the author’s father owned a sweet shop; she puts this firsthand knowledge into the backdrop of the story with Adrian, Kate’s much older friend, just as weird and wonderful, an enthusiast of music, a co-conspirator in Kate’s Falcon Investigations. . . . He would always put a scrawled sign on the counter: ‘Now Playing: Captain Beefheart, Lick My Decals Off, Baby. For more information, just ask a member of staff.’ Kate’s father doesn’t make much of an appearance, sadly, but in a few words he comes across as the greatest of dads, even if he is 61 when Kate is 10—a retired statistician, he and Kate make lists and spreadsheets, visit cemeteries, factories, forgotten parts of Birmingham. O’Flynn knows how important details are. We don’t have to be told Teresa Stanton’s being abused and that Kate is her only friend, the only one who recognizes her potential. Once O’Flynn has fleshed out the world of 1984 sufficiently, we’re dropped suddenly into 2004.
The protagonists of Green Oaks in 2004 are not quite as endearing as Kate and Adrian. I suppose it’s just part and parcel to their being so unhappy in their lives, they come off (amusingly) bereft of human spirit. Kurt is a night security guard with a lot of emotional baggage who thinks he sees the missing Kate on CCTV footage—though until the end there’s really no explanation for him to do so unless you want to claim she’s a ghost. However, with so much time to think (it’s against Kurt’s religion to read a book, apparently) he (or O’Flynn using him as a mouthpiece) comes up with profound stuff. Sometimes when he was at home in the afternoon, the sun would shine in a certain way through his bedroom window, the net curtain would move in the breeze, causing a rippling shadow on the wall, and he’d had a strong sense-memory of what it felt like to be loved, what it felt like to fall asleep and wake up with someone’s hand in yours. He’d try and hold onto this sensation of euphoria as long as he could but it was only ever momentary. Mainly, all he could dredge up of certain times were memories of memories.
Lisa works for Your Music. O’Flynn uses Lisa to an extent as an indictment of working in retail hell, which O’Flynn apparently did herself. Lisa has no life. She has a crap boyfriend, no interest in music anymore, and nothing beyond staring at the wall to interest her outside of work. She is soulless. Your Music has done this to her, to a point where she doesn’t even know how to fill out the “Interests and Hobbies” section of a job application. I found her character so deeply depressing I could barely even laugh at the grim humor surrounding the freaks in the stockroom, the sh*tter in the elevator, her insane boss Crawford, the immensely annoying Your Music customers (clearly drawn from life). The key to her character involves enduring pain and hardship because she didn’t say no at the very beginning, beautifully summed up in a childhood experience involving blanc mange, and I almost punched the air on the bus when she finally turned her life around. Even better was a scene in which, not only did she say no, she actually stopped a cycle of customer-employee-customer abuse mind-games. All with a blank tape and a copy of Mozart’s horn concertos.
When at last Lisa and Kurt meet, both of them sharing the burden of misery and more of a connection over Kate Meaney than they realize, the story picks up speed. Adrian comes back into the picture. Kurt’s still in thrall to his moral but emotionally tyrannical father. Both know more than is immediately visible about Kate. And what has happened to Kate? Is she dead? Who killed her? Adrian? Why did she never make it to Redspoon (read: vomit) Academy? All becomes clear, and I’m proud to say for once I figured out the bad guy a few steps ahead of the narrator. In the end, despite the hurt suffered by so many of the characters, you get a sense that things have happened for a reason and there is closure.
This is a funny book, but it’s also a grim book. I really like the narrative switch between 1984 and 2004. There are attempts to—what? Liven it up? Give a fuller character experience? –with short diversions in the forms of recorded thoughts of random people including bored people on Sundays who go to malls and the jerk-off Mystery Shopper. I wasn’t sure how much the book really benefited from these. I don’t quite know why parts of the prose were blocked off with chunks of dialogue—a postmodern technique, surely, but for what purpose? I really did enjoy this book and will be haunted, like Green Oaks, by Kate’s character, for some time.