Catherine O’Flynn’s debut novel, What Was Lost, is a mystery, a ghost story, a satire of consumer culture and retail work, a study of the impact a new mall has on an old town center and the community it supported, with a pinch of Harriet the Spy and a little romance. It’s scathing, hilarious, and heart-breaking by turns. I loved it, and when I assigned it in an Intro to Fiction course, many of my students liked it too. (Warning: it revolves, in part, around a long-missing child, and that storyline doesn’t end happily).
Her second novel, The News Where You Are, revisits many of the same themes, but in more muted form. At its center is Frank Allcroft, a presenter on Heart of England Reports, a regional evening news show. Frank is obsessed (at least, that’s how his wife sees his “crap hobby”) with the deaths he reports of people who are not missed for days, who are unmourned and unremembered, except by him. He mourns, too, the demolition of his architect father’s buildings, Modernist monuments to the future which are now reviled as ugly destroyers of the Victorian Birmingham they replaced. There’s mystery in this novel, too: it opens with the hit-and-run death of Frank’s former colleague, the circumstances of which Frank gradually uncovers. Then there’s Frank’s depressed mother, still relatively young and healthy but essentially waiting to die in her retirement home, refusing to be interested in anything. Like What Was Lost, this is a novel about change and loss, about the impact of an absent, invisible past on the present.
For me, NWYA didn’t measure up to its predecessor. It lacks the strong emotions of WWL, and the satire (of local TV “news”) is more muted. In vastly-oversimplified Freudian terms, WWL is a novel of mourning: at the start, the losses haunt and paralyze the characters. By the end, though, many of them have dealt with those losses (in Freudian terms, they detach their libido from the lost object), resolved some of the questions about the past that have haunted them, and are moving more hopefully into the future. Melancholia is a failure to mourn properly: feelings of loss, guilt and grief are turned against the ego. Where the mourner sees the world as empty, the melancholic sees “the loss as one in himself.” Rather than detaching from the lost object, the melancholic incorporates it into the self and gets stuck in grief. I wouldn’t say the ending of NWYA is totally hopeless, but the mood of the whole is melancholic and the novel felt “stuck” there to me. Grief can have energy; anger and sadness can be active; melancholy is passive. The main character, Frank, is pretty melancholic and drab. The female characters (especially Frank’s mother, wife and daughter) are seen only from Frank’s point of view and feel underdeveloped to me. I particulary regretted this in the case of his daughter Mo, as Kate Meaney, the child character whose point of view opens WWL, is so wonderful and alive.
That’s not to say there weren’t good moments here. I liked it, I just didn’t love it. The frustrations of Frank and his co-presenter Julia in the face of “news” stories like the woman who builds clothespin models of famous monuments to set alight on bonfire night are quite funny, and I especially liked Frank’s mother’s storyline. The reflections on loss, memory, and what it means to leave a legacy are often evocative and lovely, as when Michael (one of the unmourned dead whose story Frank uncovers) thinks about the loss of his wife:
He feels her absence . . . all the time. It’s there in specific things: the dip in the bed where she used to lie, the shape of the crack in the vase that she dropped. . . .
What I love most about this novel, as about WWL, are the descriptions of the changing physical fabric of the city and the effect it has on the people who live there. This is one of my abiding academic interests, and in her fascination with this, O’Flynn reminds me of some of my favorite Victorian writers:
He liked this part of the city center–an area where small scraps of the past were still visible at the margins of newer developments, like unfashionable trainers peeping out from under a new suit. All the office blocks around had been converted into apartment complexes, their windows made larger, their surfaces lighter. Frank . . . wondered what the people who had worked there, who had once sat at desks dreaming of escape, now thought of the dream of champagne flutes, leather sofas, and wooden laminate flooring that was being sold back to them. He wondered if any of them had bought an apartment there and looked down now on the view they once hated with new eyes.
O’Flynn has a gift for creating small details and scenes that bring even minor characters to life. There’s the carwash owner, Azad, who tells Frank about how Michael introduced him to singers like Nat King Cole, and how Michael, his business partner and their wives used to clear away the tools in the machine shop on Friday nights, put on records and dance; Azad imagines them dressed like ballroom competitors on TV, twirling in a candlelit workroom. There’s Walter, a fellow-resident of Frank’s mother, who looks at the dinner menu in the retirement home (butternut squash cannelloni, lamb shanks with roasted root vegetables) and says he just wants a shepherd’s pie now and then. And who insists his band isn’t retired, just hasn’t performed in 30 years. And there’s Cyril, the former writer for a slew of “famous” comics no one’s ever heard of, who sells Frank lame jokes to use on the broadcast. Frank can’t bring himself to reject sad-sack Cyril, and the awful attempts at humour bring Frank a cult following of college students, much to his dismay.
Moments like those make me look forward to O’Flynn’s next book, even if this one fell a bit flat for me.