Catherine O'Flynn

Novelist, former child detective, specialises in failed utopias, obsolete confectionery

Born and based in Birmingham, England, UK

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Catherine O’Flynn is the author of three novels. Her debut, What Was Lost, won the 2007 Costa First Novel Award and she was named Newcomer of the Year at the British Book Awards. Her novels have been published in over 20 countries.

Catherine’s stories and articles have appeared in the New York Times, the Observer, Granta and on BBC Radio 3 & 4. She is a regular reviewer for the Guardian and BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Review.

Catherine has been described as ‘the JG Ballard of Birmingham…finding poetry and meaning where others see merely boredom and dereliction.’

Catherine reads from her novel, Mr Lynch's Holiday, in this Hay Festival podcast.

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Mr Lynch’s Holiday, 2013, Penguin

The News Where You Are, 2010, Penguin

What Was Lost, 2007, Tindal Street

Editor, Roads Ahead, 2009 Tindal Street

‘The Flawed Cartographer’, 2008, Granta 103

‘Snare Girl’, The Empty Page, 2008, Serpent's Tail

‘You’ve Got Everything Now’, Paint a Vulgar Picture, 2009, Serpent's Tail

Extract: What Was Lost

He never expected to see anything on the CCTV. No one ever did on the night shift.

He’d been looking at the same monitor screens for the past thirteen years. When he closed his eyes he could still see all the empty corridors and locked doors in soft greyscale tones. Sometimes he thought maybe they were just flickering photographs – still lives that would never change. But then she appeared in the middle of the night and he never thought that again.

It was the early hours of Boxing Day. Green Oaks Shopping Centre closed only on Christmas Day and Easter Sunday and Kurt always worked both as part of the two-man skeleton crew. The customers didn’t like it when the centre shut. On Christmas Day he’d seen the usual small angry crowd banging on the glass doors demanding admission. He watched them on the monitor and thought how like zombies they were. The undead demanding refunds and exchanges.

Now in the security office with only a beaten up Philips radio for company, he leaned back in the leather swivel chair and unscrewed the lid of his thermos – he wondered if it was too early to start his sandwiches. The DJ was dedicating ‘Wichita Lineman’ to Audrey in Great Barr. Kurt quietly sang along with Glen. Scott had drawn the short straw and was out in the darkness, patrolling the icy, still car parks around the perimeter. Kurt couldn’t help but smile.

The camera view changed and twenty-four new flickering vistas opened up on screen. On the top left monitor he caught a brief glimpse of Scott walking diagonally across the bottom half of the screen. His breath was visible for a second before and after his image appeared. Kurt had a new year’s resolution. It was a week early, but he knew what it was already. It was easy to remember because it was the same as last year and the year before: he was going to quit his job and get out of Green Oaks. But this time he meant it. He’d never intended to stay in the job long and now thirteen years had passed and he didn’t know where they’d gone. Patrolling empty corridors, eating sandwiches in the middle of the night, looking at his reflection in the one-way glass. He seemed incapable of leaving: something always held him back. It bothered him that life was slipping through his hands and all he seemed able to do was watch it go. He had no ambition to do anything else, but he thought that he should.

He closed his eyes and imagined a thermal image taken from high above – with him and Scott as two tiny red dots at the centre of a vast cold blue shadow covering the heart of the Midlands. In a few hours the centre would be packed with bodies and Scott and he would be lost amidst all the other blobs of colour swarming and merging. Kurt had volunteered for a double shift, but was dreading the noise and confusion of the day ahead. The other guards had families and liked to spend bank holidays with them. In particular they seemed to like spending those days with their families at Green Oaks or sometimes, for a change, another shopping centre further afield. Kurt would see them grimly pushing their way through the holiday crowds, trying to enjoy life on the other side. Free time – what were they supposed to do with it?

He bit into a fishpaste sandwich and looked at his watch: it was four a.m. Six till eight were the best hours of the shift for him. He loved to watch the first, tentative encroachments made by the early workers. He liked to see the cleaners implacably removing all trace of the day before, wiping away fingerprints, brushing up hair, hoovering dust, tampering with evidence. He felt his head being cleansed with every stroke. The screaming baby, the violent pensioner, the useless shoplifter, the desperate woman, the lonely man, the mysterious lift shitter . . . all deleted one by one. All sealed in bin bags and wheeled off down grey corridors to waiting waste containers. The centre waking up was like a lullaby to him, which soothed and calmed him before he went home to sleep.

As he reached for his crisps something caught the corner of his eye and he looked back at the wall of monitors. He saw the figure standing in front of the banks and building societies on level 2. It was a child, a girl, though her face was hard to see. She stood perfectly still, a notebook in her hand and a toy monkey sticking out of her bag. Kurt spun round to pick up his radio and signal Scott, and as he turned back to the screens he saw her disappear out of picture. He changed camera view: nothing. He rapidly clicked through each of the monitors’ camera positions, but there was no sign of her. He was surprised to feel his tired heart beating hard as he called to Scott.