An irregular, irreverent, post-modern account of the surreal, the ordinary, and the bizarre happenings on and around the Felia lavender farm in Crete

Sunday, August 24, 2008

2 Book reviews - The Good Bones and What Was Lost

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold and
What Was Lost by Kathy O'Flynn

A bumper summer "two for one" review today. These two books came to me at different times but I somehow ended up reading them back to back. Both received very good reviews when they first came out and both are debut novels by new female writers.

The Lovely Bones is narrated by a dead young girl, a murdered girl in fact, and is narrated from heaven. Sebold has chosen an interesting narrative viewpoint from which to investigate the effects of death on those left behind by a violent death and she makes the structure work to good effect but by announcing the murder, the murderee, and the murderer at the very outset she seems to eschew any element of mystery.

Kathy O'Flynn on the other hand begins by introducing us to a little girl who fancies herself a detective as she mooches around a shopping centre taking notes, following people and almost willing a crime to happen. In doing so, O'Flynn takes time to make us empathise with this youngster and to understand her and then we begin to imagine and to savour a broad potentiality. O'Flynn paints her protagonist's life, family, friends and motivation sympathetically whilst leaving us wondering about some of the slightly strange figures who people her odd everyday experience and it is this depth and this strangeness that encourages out imagination.

Sebold attempts manfully to imagine a heaven that our murdered girl inhabits and from which she watches over the trauma and disjoint that her death leaves in its wake - and intervenes in on occasion. It is her failure to convince in the matter of this imaginary heaven that is the downfall of the book. Suspending my atheism as best I could did still not allow me to find Sebold's heaven feasible and I fear that many readers will have the same problem.

Rather than an imaginary heaven O'Flynn moves the second part of her novel into the all too real shopping centre (mall) that our girl detective has haunted in the first part where a similar all seeing perspective is drawn from the myriad of CCTV cameras. Where Sebold's narrative conceit becomes more arbitrary, whimsical and sentimental O'Flynn's becomes more realistic, gritty, and believable and whereas Sebold exercises her own imagination O'Flynn gets us to exercise ours.

Thus we have two debut novels by young women about dead young girls both of which use interesting structures to unveil the same scenario - death and its aftermath. Whereas I shall give Sebold another chance should I come across her next novel I shall actively seek out more work by O'Flynn.


1 comment:

  1. I found O'Flynn's ‘What Was Lost’ very interesting and original in many ways.

    The inner lives and sensations, the social interactions and patterns, and the ordinary humdrum life mix and split in the book in original ways. The characters are well crafted: they're ordinary people, but the representation of their lives, decisions and thoughts is not dull, but insightful.

    The multifaceted title of the book encourage the reader to complement the thematical spheres. Also the letters of anonymous members of the community emphasize the human and social agenda, so that we’re not dealing with a mere superficial crime novel.

    I liked the themes that I found on my reading in the book: one's loyalty to one's self vs. habitual conformity, superficial level of acts vs. mental structures we share, how we face changes this consumer society is leading us into.

    The way the story closes makes it a credible and fully developed plot. I'd have liked to see it left open, to leave the reader with various choices - as if to leave it open whether Kate was a girl of blood and flesh or if she was an angel or a conceptual primus motor behind the lives of the characters of the events, or even behind the converging epicentre the Green Oaks shopping centre was.

    The discourse is both fluent and natural, and yet has some faltering in it. The style and structure that the author has decided to write is fluent and natural for most of the book. Still, the ways the character’s personalities are present or hidden in the narrator’s discourse do falter a bit. The decision to put in the anonymous letters (in italics), and still mix character’s personal style into the narrator’s part (like Kate’s in the beginning) would have needed some further revision.

    I agree with you that this is a great little story. It makes me await for more from Katherine O’Flynn.