Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Fictional retail therapy?

Who hasn't toiled in retail at one point of their working career? During high school I worked part-time as a cashier at a Canadian Tire and I still shudder in horror at the remembrance of their Boxing Day sales. Canadians can essentially be divided into two types of people: those who use their Canadian Tire money on their next purchase (me) and those who hoard it for years, sometimes decades, until they have enough 5 and 10 cent bills to pay for a microwave (every guy I've ever dated). If you fall in the second camp, in retrospective solidarity with the sanity of those poor cashiers and the shoppers in line, I plead with you to spend that fake money when you get to say, $5.00 instead of $500.00. And for god's sake, sort it out beforehand into the proper denominations. Stop the madness! Okay, digression over.
I bring this up because I recently finished Catherine O'Flynn's delightful and heartbreaking novel, What Was Lost. It's deservedly on the Booker longlist and has been an independent bookstore handsell favourite in the U.K. Plus it had an enthusiastic endorsement from Jonathan Coe on the cover, so how could I resist? I don't want to give too much away, but the first part deals with a lonely, inquisitive ten-year old named Kate Meany who fancies herself a detective-in-the-making. She spends a good deal of her time watching people at the Green Oaks shopping mall and recording her observations in her notebook, her trusty stuffed monkey Mickey (named for Spillane) always by her side. Fans of Harriet the Spy will absolutely adore Kate. But then she goes missing. We jump ahead to over fifteen years later. Kurt, a security guard at Green Oaks sees Kate's image on a surveillance tape and Lisa, a manager at one of those huge record superstores finds Mickey hidden behind some pipes in the staff corridors. Their lives curiously intersect as the devasting story of what happened to Kate slowly unfolds. This is a sad, two hankey kind of novel, but broken up by some hilarious (and recognizable) portraits of depressed staff dealing with odd and impossibly demanding customers at the record store. And the writing is just wonderful; teenagers will love this book. It makes me look forward to Douglas Coupland's next novel, The Gum Thief, coming out next month. It is set entirely in an office supplies superstore and is described as, "Clerks-meets-Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?". Can't wait.

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