Skip to main content
US Macmillan Tradebooks for Courses

What Was Lost

A Novel

Catherine O'Flynn

Holt Paperbacks

What Was Lost Download image

ISBN10: 0805088334
ISBN13: 9780805088335

Trade Paperback

256 Pages


Request Desk Copy
Request Exam Copy


Sign up to receive information about new books, author events, and special offers.

Sign up now

Winner of the Costa First Novel Award
Short-listed for The Guardian First Book Award
Long-listed for The Booker Prize
Long-listed for The Orange Prize
A School Library Journal Best Adult Book for Teens

In the 1980s, Kate Meaney—with her "Top Secret" notebook and toy monkey in tow—is hard at work as a junior detective. Busy trailing "suspects" and carefully observing everything around her at the newly opened Green Oaks shopping mall, she forms an unlikely friendship with 22-year-old Adrian, the son of a local shopkeeper. 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 2003, Adrian's sister Lisa—stuck in a dead-end relationship—is working as a manager at Your Music, a discount record store. Every day she tears her hair out at the outrageous behavior of her customers and colleagues. But along with a security guard, Kurt, she becomes entranced by the little girl glimpsed on the mall's surveillance cameras. As their after-hours friendship intensifies, Lisa and Kurt investigate how these sightings might be connected to the unsettling history of Green Oaks itself.


Praise for What Was Lost

"If there's any kind of mystery that's a natural for winter reading, it's the suspense story, especially one like What Was Lost, which has you questioning your own sanity. In this captivating first novel by Catherine O'Flynn, a lonely 10-year-old who fancies herself a private detective roams a local shopping mall, snooping in everybody's business—until the day she disappears."—Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review

"What Was Lost is a delight to read—poignant, suspenseful, funny and smart . . . [It] is a moving novel, bespeaking not only the energy and inventiveness of its author but also the power of good old realism."—Jane Smiley, Los Angeles Times Sunday Book Review

"Childhood: not just another country or even another planet, but, in Catherine O'Flynn's delicate wilderness of a first novel, a tiny asteroid on collision course with our bloated planet . . . O'Flynn contrives two liberations. Kurt, a security guard, and Lisa, a shift supervisor, discover, bit by bit, their own and each other's inextinguishable humanity and, not incidentally, a way out . . . [O'Flynn] has evoked her mall world with convincing spookiness. She has created warm and winning portraits of Lisa and Kurt as battlers against the nightmare . . . Yet something of the children's lingering edge, and the mystery involved, haunts the mall sections and lends them a bit of their magical specificity . . . [What Was Lost] is remarkable."—Richard Eder, The Boston Globe

"In the children's classic, The Velveteen Rabbit, it's a child who makes a toy real. But in stories for grown-ups, the truth is the reverse: It's the toy that makes the child real. With its intimations of sweetness and vulnerability, of an imagination unfettered, a toy beloved of a young character in a book (or a movie, or a play) instantly imbues that child with poignancy. In Catherine O'Flynn's What Was Lost, the toy in question is a small stuffed monkey named Mickey, dressed in 'a pin-striped gangster suit with spats' and customarily seen riding around in the canvas bag of a precocious little girl named Kate. The year is 1984, the place is Birmingham, England, and the mood is loneliness mixed with whimsy . . . After Lisa, the overqualified assistant manager of a music superstore in the mall, spies Mickey hidden behind a ventilation pipe, Kurt recognizes the toy, and he and Lisa set out to search for the child together. Both Kurt and Lisa are about the age Kate would be, had she grown up, and each of them has become the inert species of adult Adrian described. Having failed almost utterly to fulfill whatever promise they had as children, they're not so much dead as sleepwalking through life—a habit easy to fall into, given that vast tracts of their lives are spent in the spiritual and aesthetic wasteland that is a shopping mall. Sharp, funny, and suffused with quiet sadness, What Was Lost is a ghost story, and when the novel flashes forward to 2003, Kate's disappearance still haunts some of those she left behind . . . Such is the difficulty in approaching a novel whose prime locale is a mall: The assumption is that airlessness, claustrophobia, and fatigue will prevail for the reader as well. Sidestepping that trap is one of the small miracles that Ms. O'Flynn performs with What Was Lost, which won last year's Costa First Novel Award, was short-listed for the Guardian First Book Award, and was long-listed for the Booker and Orange prizes. An intuitive storyteller who tosses off scenes of Office-style comedy as smoothly and keenly as she anatomizes the aftermath of loss, she breathes not only oxygen but life into a dead zone. (Why the book is coming out in this country in trade paperback rather than hardcover is an interesting question, but it should not be taken as any reflection on its quality.) Ms. O'Flynn, who grew up in Birmingham, in England's Midlands, is chronicling in part the changes that occurred there and in the larger culture in the 1980s, when the factories shut down, consumers abandoned urban shopping districts in favor of shopping malls, and security cameras started on their way toward omnipresence. But that is her backdrop. In the foreground, amid the laugh lines, the beautifully calibrated suspense, and the punch-in-the-gut plot twists, are notions about the watcher and the watched, about lost chances, about the ripple effects of passivity and failures of courage. And this, too: All of that surveillance, and still horrendous acts occur unseen."—Laura Collins-Hughes, The New York Sun

"Working at a mall doesn't compare to going to one voluntarily. Having to deal with strange customers, egotistical bosses, and flaky coworkers—never mind shelling out a significant portion of your paycheck to eat at the food court on your lunch hour—isn't worth the slightly above minimum wages. Catherine O'Flynn, author of What Was Lost, gives a pretty spot-on description of mall life. Green Oaks, the Birmingham shopping center detailed in the novel, is a nightmarish complex, and she gives an accurate insight on how suffocating it may be to work there long after you should have moved on . . . What Was Lost won the Costa First Novel Award and O'Flynn's talent is very apparent."—Susan Cohen, Charleston City Paper

"Twenty years after a young girl goes missing, two forlorn British mall employees, Kurt and Lisa, bond over their melancholy and, later, over their connection to the girl's case. Catherine O'Flynn's sprawling debut novel is a fascinating look at urban change, and it's easy to sympathize with her protagonists stuck in dead-end jobs . . . [A] subtle, cleverly written study of Kurt and Lisa's mutual ennui."—Susan Cohen, Entertainment Weekly

"In What Was Lost, a dark, enthralling thriller by Catherine O'Flynn, the young girl detective is all on her own—heartbreakingly so. Kate Meaney, the plucky, earnest, touching protagonist of What Was Lost, may be a child, she's already a very solitary girl . . . She's as odd and endearing a girl as you'll meet in literature and the memory of her will linger long after you read the end of her story."—Marjorie Kehe, The Christian Science Monitor

"Set in Birmingham, England (O'Flynn is British), for the most part at the enormous Green Oaks shopping mall, What Was Lost is, as one would expect of a book set at a mall, partially a critique of consumer culture. If that's all the book were, we'd shelve it with the general fiction. What Was Lost, however, is also a mystery novel, complete with a missing little orphan girl named Kate (unrelentingly spunky and cute, as fictional orphans are wont to be), a nutcase shopping mall security cop (obsessed with something quirky, as deranged villains tend to be—this one with the history of the shopping mall) and a detective who's on a personal mission. But What Was Lost is not only a social critique and a mystery; it's also a ghost story. Kate's apparition appears once in a while to help all concerned solve the 20-year-old mystery of her disappearance . . . When people read genre works—mysteries and romances, science fiction and ghost stories—they come to the books with certain expectations for characters, plotlines and linguistic tropes. Likewise, readers of Literature (with a capital 'L') have their own expectations, including that anything resembling genre work be either eliminated or parodied. What Was Lost is an attempt to bridge the gulf between genre work and Literature, a feat accomplished by few authors, notably Gabriel García Márquez, Cormac McCarthy, Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut. As to whether O'Flynn has performed this difficult trick—well, readers can make their own call."—Eric Miles Williamson, San Francisco Chronicle

"The bravest and most appealing adolescent this side of The Lovely Bones, aspiring detective Kate Meaney vanishes partway through Catherine O'Flynn's mesmerizing debut novel, What Was Lost . . . There are many ways to feel invisible, we learn from this gentle, sharp-sighted tale of love and loneliness. And there are many ways to be found."—O, The Oprah Magazine

"Engrossing . . . With a sure hand for both suspense and satire, O'Flynn is a masterful writer, and her book a delicious mash-up of Nancy Drew and High Fidelity—teary and tart in the right proportions."—Marie Claire

"Kate Meaney is a 10-year-old amateur detective who tails suspicious types at the Green Oaks Mall near her home in Birmingham, England. One day in 1984, she vanishes. Twenty years later, Kurt, a Green Oaks security guard, realizes he may have been the last to see Kate and begins searching for her in the now vast, slightly sinister mall. Last year's winner of Britain's Costa Award for best first novel, O'Flynn gives readers a ghost story and satire of consumer culture. At once moving and wickedly funny, it's one dazzling debut."—Vick Boughton, People

"What Was Lost is a terrific, wonderful book and I loved every page of it."—Douglas Coupland, author of The Gum Thief

"An off-beat quirky little mystery which punches way above its weight. Set in Birmingham in the mid-eighties, adolescent loner Kate aspires to be a great detective, spending days on stake-out at her local shopping centre. The narrative then jumps 20 years, when the ghost of a little girl starts appearing in service corridors. The author's achingly astute observations on consumerism make this far more than a generic mystery and the icing on the cake is a twist in the tale which I really didn't see coming."—Marian Keyes, author of Anybody Out There? and Angels

"Stirring and beautifully crafted, this debut novel recounts how the repercussions of a girl's disappearance can last for decades. In 1984, Kate Meaney is a 10-year-old loner who solves imaginary mysteries and guesses the dark secrets of the shoppers she observes at the Green Oaks mall. Kate's unlikely circle includes her always-present stuffed monkey; 22-year-old Adrian, who works at the candy shop next door; and Kate's classmate, Teresa Stanton, who hides her intelligence behind disruptive behavior. Kate's grandmother has plans for Kate: send her to boarding school. But Kate doesn't want to go. Fast forward to 2003, where it's revealed through Lisa, Adrian's sister, that Kate disappeared nearly 20 years ago, and Adrian, blamed in her disappearance, also vanished. Lisa works at a record store in Green Oaks and is drawn to Kurt, a security guard whose surveillance-camera sightings of a little girl clutching a stuffed monkey hint that he might have ties to Kate's disappearance. Teresa, meanwhile, now a detective, has her own reasons for being haunted by Kate's disappearance. Gripping to the end, the book is both a chilling mystery and a poignant examination of the effects of loss and loneliness."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"O'Flynn's debut begins with self-made detective and ten-year-old orphan Kate Meaney as she buses her way to the Green Oaks Shopping Mall, where she'll survey the various customers who may want to commit crimes: ‘Crime was out there. Undetected, unseen.' With notebook and stuffed monkey in tow, Kate spends her days when not in school either outside the mall looking to catch a thief or at a neighborhood store sharing her observations with the shop owner's son, 22-year-old Adrian Palmer. When Kate disappears one day, never to be seen again, suspicion falls on Adrian, and the two-decade-spanning, unsolved case wreaks destruction on the lives of those who had touched Kate's life in one way or another. This seamlessly written, character-driven novel offers up well-appreciated humor along with its darker material, and readers who enjoy sideswiping surprises will not be disappointed."—Jyna Scheeren, Library Journal

"In 1984, Birmingham, England, is home to Kate Meaney, 10 years old, bright, self-possessed, and so obsessively engaged in the art of detection that she puts Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet to shame. Twenty years later, Kate is just a memory in a very few people's minds—and an obsession to a security guard at a Birmingham ‘shopping and leisure center.' A peer but a stranger to Kate, he knows he saw her the day she disappeared, but, a child himself at the time, he hadn't reported his sighting. Now he sees her on the security cameras in the mall, and his new friend who works at the music store—and who has her own past with Kate—finds the little girl's toy monkey in the employees-only area of the complex. O'Flynn has created an ensemble cast of fully developed and engaging characters-children, adults, and adolescents—and placed them in a plot that twists and turns more than the underground and locked stretches of the mall. And she creates sentences and verbal images that are both finely honed and flawlessly flowing. This is a book with high appeal to mystery and suspense fans, and also to anyone who appreciates fine writing or mesmerizing storytelling."—Francisca Goldsmith, Halifax Public Libraries, Nova Scotia, School Library Journal

"This debut novel, nominated for the Man Booker Prize, is part mystery, part ghost story, and altogether wonderful. The story begins in O'Flynn's hometown, Birmingham, England, in 1984. The heroine is Kate Meaney, ten-year-old private eye. Kate's interest in detective work is rooted in a fondness for film noir she shares with her father. When he dies, her amateur sleuthing helps her remain connected to his memory. Kate is a shy, serious, singular child, and her only friends are eccentrics and outcasts. There's Adrian, the adult son of a local shopkeeper; Teresa, the girl who sets new standards for naughtiness when she transfers to Kate's school; and Mickey, the plush monkey who accompanies her on stakeouts at the local mall. Kate's grandmother—who becomes her guardian when her father dies—wants Kate to go to boarding school, but Kate has other ideas. The narrative shifts to 2003. The mall where Kate followed suspects is still there, but now the action revolves around Kurt, a security guard, and Lisa, an assistant manager at a record store. Neither is happy at work, but these dead-end jobs are just symptoms of a more general malaise and paralysis. Both Kurt and Lisa are immobilized by tragedy, and both become obsessed with a little girl Kurt sees on a security camera one night—a little girl with a plush monkey peeking out of her backpack. This is, ultimately, the story of Kate's disappearance and the people transformed by it. It's also a mordantly funny depiction of the contemporary retail workplace. And it's a romance. These pieces should not fit together, but they do. O'Flynn is able to capture a character or a scene with a few perfect details, and she seems to possess an uncanny, ennobling sympathy for her characters."—Kirkus Reviews

Reviews from Goodreads


Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Crime was out there. Undetected, unseen. She hoped she wouldn't be too late. The bus driver was keeping the bus at a steady 15 mph, braking at every approaching green light until it turned red. She closed her eyes and continued...

About the author

Catherine O'Flynn

Catherine O'Flynn's is the author of The News Where You Are and What Was Lost, which won the Costa First Novel Award in 2007, was short-listed for The Guardian First Book Award, and was long-listed for the Booker Prize and the Orange Prize. She lives in Birmingham, England.

Peter Fletcher

Catherine O'Flynn

Official Links