Literary prizes are funny beasts and reader reactions to Booker longlists are even stranger. Once I’d passed the astonishment of “What? No Lizard Cage!“, I was then amazed by the listing of a piece of chicklit. An assumption based on the cover. Hang on a second: the cover is a muted aubergine, not pastel pink. The content must similarly be deeper and more subtle. Indeed, first impressions can be deceptive.
The mystery at the centre of the book concerns the disappearance of Kate Meany, a lonely 10-year old child, whose compulsive spying leads her into deep waters. In 1984 she spies on her neighbours and the consumers at Green Oaks Shopping Centre and then she vanishes. Twenty years later she reappears on the surveillance screen of a nighttime security guard, a man whose existence in 2003 has many similarities with that of Meany’s : dead loved ones, chronic loneliness and a survival strategy centred around long shifts in the shopping complex.
This is a strategy he shares with many others, in particular, the shoppers who run around in a flurry of activity, desperate to buy the latest must-have and kill the desperate hours of a long Sunday afternoon – their plight in O’Flynn’s analogy something similar to that of pandas (!).
“They spend their lives looking for leaves and bamboo to eat, but eathing that stuff does them no good, they can’t digest it, so they have no energy. They have to lie down and rest all the time. …. They spend their whole lives in this pointless pursuit that just saps them.”
The point is cleverly emphasised in a series of vignettes interspersed throughout the novel, short pieces written by individuals who frequent the huge complex: an anonymous youth, an anonymous woman, an unidentified customer. The loss of identity is significant. For in a novel with a backdrop of constant surveillance and noise (be it of music pumped into the stores or the low-level static hiss of the crowd) communication within personal relationships is empty at best, dishonest at worst. True intimacy and friendship have been lost in the noise and consumerism of modern life.It is the same failure to communicate that leaves the disappearance of the girl unsolved for 20 years … and the fallout from that leads to further family breakdown and heartbreaking tragedy in the present. The skillful timing of one key revelation (the identity of the man in the car) literally took my breathe away. That O’Flynn chooses a neat, if somewhat rushed and implausible (?) solution to the central mystery demonstrates that this is not her prime concern. In doing so, however, she delivers a satisfactory ending and a very readable, though extremely thought-provoking debut novel. I look forward to her second.
P.S I went shopping Sunday last. The latest must-have requiring instant gratification was, of course, a booker longlistee. Just as well it wasn’t this one. O’Flynn would never approve!