About this time last year, I wrote a blog in praise of Catherine O’Flynn, a Birmingham author whose second novel, The News Where You Are, I was reading at the time and which inspired me to pick up my pen once again after a couple of years’ absence and procrastination.
I recently unearthed her acclaimed first novel, What Was Lost, in a charity shop (2 paperback novels for £3 – bargain). Oh wow, I’m only a third of the way through and I just know it’s going to be one of those books I will be incapable of putting down and will finish in a couple of days.
What Was Lost is set in Birmingham (partly) in the 1980s – what’s not to love? And its main location is a shopping mall named Green Oaks, very reminiscent of Merry Hill, the Black Country colossus in which I whiled away many an hour as a teenager. For Black Country youth, the “Mezza” was (and doubtlessly still is) a popular Saturday afternoon hangout, and bunking-off destination if you fancied escaping school on the bus.
I won’t give too much away, but Chapter 1 begins in 1984 aboard a bus, with Kate, seemingly a young policewoman, observing the shifty antics of her fellow passengers. It soon becomes clear, however, that Kate is in fact a lonely, precocious, fantasist 10-year-old girl who, bored with humdrum school life and left to her own devices by her family, dreams of becoming a detective and lives out her fantasy by making notes of “suspicious” behaviour and painstakingly drawing assorted noses, moustaches, glasses, etc, in a makeshift Identi-Kit book.
This is an utter gem of a book. The writing just leaps off the page. I adore the setting, of course, and the 80s touches. Most of all, I can identify with little Kate.
The younger Leigh harboured no aspirations to investigate crime, but I was that quiet, imaginative kid in class, whose brain would leap ahead of her; the misfit; the one who usually befriended the deprived, unruly, misunderstood genius (named Teresa Stanton in the book). I yearned for a world away from netball, incomprehensible maths and watching Science Workshop on that huge telly and Betamax video the teachers used to wheel in. In my case I used to bury myself in creating stories. Some things have not changed.
The urge to write still marches through my fingers. I am feeling so inspired today. Engrossing myself in effortless-looking prose like Catherine’s really spurs me on to try and make something of my own writing.