Friday, August 3, 2007

Book Report/What Was Lost

We American anglophiles must amaze, and maybe irritate the British. We just have this thing, this love for what we call "all things English." We are obsessed with the Cotswolds; why, just the word sends most of us into a dreamworld. We adore villages with a green, and tea shops with real cream teas, and little post offices that sell sweets, and a local pub. We can't get enough of Rosamunde Pilcher and her son, Robin. We want to retire in a little house like Miss Marple's or a little village such as Miss Read's Thrush Green. Are our dreams the "real" England? Probably not completely, but yet some of them are true . I know that I have stayed in such villages. I have seen the beauty of the Lake District and Thomas Hardy Country. It does exist. But it is not the only England. There is also the England of Detective Inspector Frost. There are big cities, poor areas, tough young people committing crimes. And we do know this, really we do.

What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn is set in this "other" England. Not the picture postcards but Birmingham in 1984, and in 2003. A place that used to be industrial and now isn't so much. Where there is unemployment and boredom and hopelessness. This is not the beautiful countryside of Rosamunde Pilcher or the affluent London of Sophie Kinsella. This is the Midlands, where industry reigned and then ended and the people fell on hard times. The twenty-somethings in this book are working in sad, lonely, boring jobs at a shopping mall - some in the stores and others viewing the security cameras. They have no expectations from life. Perhaps, the truest anglophiles also embrace these parts of the country we love so much. I know that I do. I enjoy watching Blue Murder which is set in Manchester. Even the seediness is somehow appealing. The real Brits are probably right in their assumption that we are all a bit crazy. We are. We are crazy for England - and Scotland and Ireland.

I received this signed copy of What Was Lost as my Buy A Friend A Book prize from dovegreyreader.

The book uses a device I love, switching back and forth (though not too much) between different time periods. We meet people and then see them later in their lives. The characters were very well written and this shopping mall was such a presence that it was almost another character.

The key problem with Green Oaks was the gulf between conditions for customers and conditions for staff. The centre was built at a time when the idea of turning a shopping centre into some larger leisure experience was just beginning to gain currency in Europe. The architects and planners of Mark 2 Green Oaks embraced the idea of creating an unparalleled experience for shoppers - with verdant rest areas, ergonomic seating, light and airy atriums, water features, convenient parking, vast and lavish public toilets. In contrast, staff areas in each store were cramped to allow maximum sales floor footage. Staff facilities were of an extremely low level: few toilets, dark interior areas, outdated and ineffective ventilation and heating, bare breeze-walk walls, constant sewage odours and significant rat infestation.

There is indeed a shopping centre in Birmingham.

I sing what was lost and dread what was won
William Butler Yeats

I don't know if this is where the title came from but it is very fitting to the book- what was lost was the ugliness of factories and probably dismal lives. Now, there is the bright, sparkling shopping mall; yet just as bad in its own way and perhaps worse because it gives the illusion of happiness. Bright and shiny. And as in the best book titles, there is a second meaning which we learn by the end of the story.

This is how we spend our Sundays now. It's become quite the tradition. Spend a few hours in bed reading the papers, and then we come down here. The papers always have something: a review of a book, or a CD, or a recipe. Even the bits that don't look like adverts are adverts really. They're not really newspapers, more like catalogues. Anyway, that's our mission for the day then. Go to Green Oaks and get that thing that we need. Maybe when we're here, we'll find something else we want as well. Go home tonight, eat a nice meal, listen to the new album, read the first few pages of a good book - that's the weekend done. Always a little mission, then a little reward. We haven't found anything we want to buy today. We're going in all the right shops but nothing's really grabbing us. It's raining outside, though, so what else would we be doing? Sitting at home staring at each other. Going up the walls on a Sunday afternoon, that's what we used to do. Thank God for Sunday trading.

A nice touch of irony to that last sentence, yes?

Although I began this post about the love we Americans have for England, and yes, this is an English book, aren't the excerpts absolutely familiar to those of us in the US? Shopping is exactly that: a "leisure experience." People of all ages "go to the mall" seeking what? The ultimate article of clothing? The most popular best seller? The perfect kitchen utensil? This is what we do. We shop. We feel a thrill, and then we feel a letdown because the purchase does not change our lives in any essential way. Very sad.

This excellent debut book is a family story, a society story, a mystery. It held my interest right to the ending. Now, I'll go read dovegreyreader's review.


  1. This book sounds very interesting- I suspect it is only published in Britain? As I was reading the last excerpt, I was thinking exactly what you wrote in the following paragraphs, about the American way of 'shopping'.

  2. You're right, it doesn't seem to be over here yet. It is really such a good book.

  3. Wonderful, wonderful post! I loved all you wrote about our love for Britain, as well as your thoughts about shopping. I'd much rather curl up with a book or a good movie than go to a mall to shop.

  4. Thank you, Les, for reading the book report and commenting on it. I really liked this book.

  5. dot com won't have it, but if you can bear the shipping, with deliver it I'm sure.

    Or you can wait for it to get a US version (maybe now it's on the Booker).

  6. Elaine and Joyfeed,
    I do own the book. As I wrote in my review, a kind fellow blogger in England sent it to me.


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