The Worst Mall in England


What was Lost by Catherine O’ Flynn

The 1980s: Ten-year-old Kate Meaney – with her ‘Top Secret’ notebook and Mickey her toy monkey – is busy being a junior detective. She observes goings-on and follows ‘suspects’ at the newly opened Green Oaks shopping centre and in her street, where she is friends with the news agent’s son, Adrian. 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 2004, Lisa is working as a deputy manager at Your Music, a cut-price record store. Every day, under the watchful eye of the CCTV, she tears her hair out at the behavior of her customers and colleagues. But when she meets security guard Kurt, she becomes entranced by the little girl he keeps glimpsing on the centre’s CCTV. As their after-hours friendship intensifies, they investigate how these sightings might be connected to the unsettling history of Green Oaks. (Goodreads)

Inspired by a security guard’s ghost story and her experiences as a manager in a music store, Catherin O’ Flynn creates a poignant mystery that takes place in two particular years: 1984, which tells the adventurous tale of ten-year old Kate as she investigates the newly-built mall on their area and 2003, which details Lisa and Kurt’s weary lives as they work at Green Oaks and later on, return to the mystery of the girl who had gone missing 19 years ago. The tone of the two timelines vary from one another– 1984 is an exciting adventure while 2003 has a bleak and solemn note in it. Even so, the book is not without a touch of humor. The common problems of every retail store were amusing reads and it was also fun to follow Kate’s adventures spying strangers and taking notes of any ‘suspicious’ activity plus her smart discussions with Adrian, her bestfriend, who also happens to be Lisa’s older brother.

More so, O’ Flynn shows how much she could do with her setting; she didn’t only brought Green Oaks into life, she turned it into an unconscious yet chilling antagonist. O’ Flynn creates a place rich of ideas to ponder about– consumerism and materialism– but without getting too preachy about it. She uses interspersing narratives, creative dialogues, and a quiet mystery to flesh out the novel’s themes. I don’t think I’ve read a novel that tackled mall culture before so reading this book was a new and insightful experience to me.

The characters appear more like caricatures than actual people so they come off rather cold and forgettable. This works effectively for they could portray certain roles that follows the novel’s themes and ideas. However, this doesn’t mean that the characters do not have any depth; they are well-written and they represent unseen everyday struggles such as loneliness, emptiness, and the lingering guilt of missed opportunities.

In the middle of this is Kate, a seemingly lonely girl who’s relieving a fantasy world, but not to the point where she ultimately loses her sense of reality– she is down-to-earth, sharp, and aware and perhaps the only one who understood what it really means to be free and alive. The writer conveyed in her essay, “On Writing What was Lost,” that she wanted Kate to be a real, interesting person who clearly knows what she wants to do and she indeed portrayed her as one fascinating character and perhaps a role model to all adults alike.

“You’ve got more  about you than any of the rest of them. I admire you, Kate, I do. Look at me. I’m twenty-two and I do nothing. You’re ten and you’re a little hive of industry, always running about, always with some project or scheme, always with stuff to do. You make the adults look dead.”

The Verdict: 4/5 Stars

An unconventional mystery and a social commentary all the same, What was Lost is a stirring novel about people trapped in the cold solace of Green Oaks and Kate, the key to its mysteries.

About the Author


Catherine O’Flynn, the youngest of six children, was born in Birmingham in 1970 to Irish parents. Her father was a newsagent, her mother a teacher.

Prior to the publication of her first novel she did a variety of jobs including web editor, box office assistant, deputy manager of a large record shop, civil servant, post woman, teacher and mystery shopper.

Her debut novel, What Was Lost, won the Costa First Novel Award, was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, and longlisted for the Booker and Orange Prizes. She was named Waterstone’s Newcomer of the Year at the 2008 Galaxy British Book Awards. She lives in Birmingham with her husband and two daughters. Goodreads | Website


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