Henry Holt: 256 pp., $14 paper
I don't know of any art form that has been declared dead more often than the realist novel. Even the term "realist novel" is a kind of pejorative -- don't we want something more entertaining and evocative than the daily news, served up in volume form, by some earnest nobody who still thinks his (or, more likely, her) insights are fresh and worthy of notice? On the face of it, endless generations telling the same two stories ("Someone comes to town" and "Someone leaves town") must certainly be a dreary enterprise. And yet . . .
And yet, things change. In the case of Catherine O'Flynn's "What Was Lost," which won a Costa Book Award this year in the U.K., what has changed is the English Midlands. Maybe not too long ago you happened to read Charles Dickens' "Hard Times," in which mercenary owners, utilitarian philosophers and desperate factory hands must toil together inside the din of the mills of the Midlands in the 1850s. And after that, you picked up "Lady Chatterley's Lover" and saw the blasted landscape of nearby mining regions some 80 years later. Now it is another 80 years on, and what has replaced the mills and the mines is a huge shopping mall called Green Oaks, and O'Flynn, a 37-year-old first novelist, has plenty to say about it that is worth saying and worth reading. "What Was Lost" is a delight to read -- poignant, suspenseful, funny and smart. Whoops! Here we go again -- plot, characters, style, wit, themes, social commentary rising from the grave and engaging actual readers!
It would be best for you if I said as little as possible about the plot. This is a novel that should have no jacket copy, no advance notices. It should come into your hands unheralded, because if you simply open to the first page and begin reading, you'll proceed in a state of innocent pleasure. Here is a little girl, Kate, her age not perfectly clear, who's read a book about how to be a detective. She follows all the instructions, with endearing earnestness. The shocking thing, which we learn in the first few chapters, is that she is an orphan; her mother has absconded to Australia and her loving and attentive father has died of a stroke. Her grandmother has come to live with her, out of a sense of obligation, but she's not going to do much. She tells Kate, "The only thing you need to know about me is that I like watching quiz shows and I like going to bingo."
And then there is Lisa. Lisa's relationship to Kate is distant, and undefined for a long time. Lisa works at the mall, in a music superstore. She lives with one of her co-workers, but she doesn't quite know why. His theory of existence is simple: "That's the point of life, isn't it? To waste time until you die." Lisa views Ed's raison d'être with some skepticism, but then she finds herself agreeing to buy an expensive loft condominium with him, one that overlooks the mall, even though this means she will have to change jobs -- she has vowed never to live near where she works. Lisa gets to know Kurt, one of the security guards. Kurt is a disappointment to his parents and to himself. He had expected to have a real job, doing real men's work, but now it's been 12 years, and he's still eking out his nights with his fellow security guards and wondering how to recover from the death of his wife three years before. It's Kurt who sees the ghost.
O'Flynn knows whereof she speaks, mall-wise, having worked, she says, as a "retail drone" and a so-called mystery shopper -- posing as a customer, in aid of market research. Her depiction of life at the mall is just what it should be -- familiar, convincing, hilarious and scary. One of the best things about it is that she paints her pictures in quick, detailed strokes and then moves on. The mystery shopper, for example, who gets drunk and disorderly in one of the mall pubs, makes a single appearance, as does the elderly man in the wheelchair with his bus pass pinned to his cap, who comes into the music store every few days to ask the sadistic manager for a tape (not a CD) he thinks has been on back order for months. It's the workers who propel the plot, a mismatched and exploited family-like group who can't stand themselves or their jobs but are sometimes beguiled by the people they see and the incidents they must deal with.
Their lives are empty, but we're not talking Jean-Paul Sartre's "No Exit" here. Flynn has much more in common with Dickens than with any nihilist you can name. Her novel is buoyed by the connections the characters strive to make and succeed in making. Even though they can't retrieve "what was lost," they can understand how it was lost and honor it.
"What Was Lost" is a moving novel, bespeaking not only the energy and inventiveness of its author but also the power of good old realism. A realist novel explores what's out there beyond the narrator's or the author's state of mind. A realist novel portrays the world as a place where empathy and sympathy are both possible, and both give the individual's inherent loneliness meaning. A realist novel asks the reader to connect and maintains that there are ideas and people worth connecting to. "What Was Lost" is a good one. But throw away the jacket and beware of spoilers. *
Jane Smiley's latest novel, "Ten Days in the Hills," was recently published in paperback.