I was a big fan of O'Flynn's debut novel, What Was Lost, so I eagerly anticipated her second novel. Although not quite as satisfying as What Was Lost, The News Where You Are was a thoroughly enjoyable and satisfying read--combining humor with affecting examinations into the nature of loss.
Loss is a major theme in this book, as it was with her first novel. In this book, our "hero" Frank Allcroft is dealing with loss on all sorts of levels--the loss of his architect father's buildings (which are being knocked down one by one) and the loss of his friend and colleague Phil (who died in a never solved hit-and-run accident). As he shuffles through life, shackled with his corny on-air persona and a gentle loserish air he can't seem to shed (even with his own wife), Frank decides to investigate Phil's death on his own--seeking answers about why the vibrant and successful Phil made some strange phone calls to Frank shortly before his death and the connection between Phil and an elderly man found dead on park bench. Interspersed with this storyline is Frank's memories of his childhood--populated by his workaholic father and unhappy mother. As his father's buildings are demolished one by one, Frank realizes he must come to terms with his own past if he is to have a rewarding future.
As in What Was Lost, buildings and the physical surroundings of Birmingham play a large part in the story--becoming almost characters themselves. Like the Green Oaks Shopping Center in What Was Lost, buildings, new subdivisions and the assisted-living center become part of the story--given as much attention by O'Flynn as her human characters. O'Flynn tends to anthropomorphize cities, buildings and houses--imbuing them with meaning and personalities. I personally enjoy this aspect of O'Flynn's books; it makes for interesting reading.
"That's what I liked about this city."
"What? That it's crap and everything fails?"
"No. That it has these ridiculous dreams, that it always tries to reinvent itself, to be the city of the future, but then always changes its minds about what the future should be. I love the little glimpses you catch of the old dreams, the old ideas of what Utopia should be. I think if you get rid of the, no matter how embarrassing or naive they are, then you lose something essential about the place."
I think O'Flynn's greatest talent lies in the way she is able to capture with pinpoint accuracy and humor all the little foibles and interior conversations we all have with ourselves but rarely share. I saw so much of myself in Frank as I read--from his need to be polite causing him to be enmeshed in unwanted relationships to his sense of doubt in his own abilities. Consider this excerpt:
The motorway was quiet, but he stayed in the slow lane tucked behind a beaten-up van traveling at fifty. Frank secretly held a strong suspicion that he should not be in charge of a vehicle after dark. On city streets all was fine, but on country lanes or unlit stretches of motorway he was alarmed at the sullen lack of communication between his eyes and his brain. Something had gone wrong between them in the last year or two and now the brain would periodically choose to ignore or willfully misinterpret visual input. The familiar patterns of taillights, road signs and oncoming headlights had broken down into free-form floating abstract projections through which Frank hurtled wide-eyed on leather upholstery. At times he mistook the retreating taillights of the car ahead for headlights coming toward him, at others he would mistake reflections on his side window for vehicles swerving into his lane. His progress along a deserted stretch of motorway was often punctured by sudden braking at phantom hazards on the road ahead.
When I read this paragraph, I was smiling to myself as it is a perfect description of my own night driving. (And, if I'm completely honest, occasionally my day-time driving.) I'm forever mistaking leaves blowing across the road for squirrels and braking suddenly. I've hallucinated deer darting in front of the car that were merely shadows. O'Flynn is a master of this type of detail, and I think that is what makes her characters so believable and relatable.
Although the story has sad and dark undertones, O'Flynn never wallows in it or allows it to become overpowering. When Frank remembers his childhood, he describes his mother as having purple days and orange days.
On purple days, his mother pulls plants up in the garden, she looks out the window at nothing in particular for impossibly long stretches and speaks to her sister in a low voice on the telephone for hours. Sometimes she is cross at Francis, while at others, she doesn't seem to notice he's there at all.
On orange days she tells stories, she invents games, she takes Francis on expeditions and most of all she makes him laugh.
It is obvious his mother is suffering from severe depression, yet when Frank visits her in the assisted-living center, her unrelenting Eyeore-like gloom and refusal to admit to any type of pleasure becomes comical.
But the brightest light in this book is Mo, Frank's daughter. O'Flynn has a gift for writing children, and I would love to see her write an entire books from a child's point of view. (In What Was Lost, the parts with Kate were so endearing and charming that the whole book dimmed when she wasn't in it.) I also enjoyed the sections when O'Flynn writes as young Francis/Frank. She has a firm grasp of what it is like to be a child and how they view the world. Consider this excerpt where a young Frank is playing with his toys using one of his father's scale models:
Today, though, he was caught up in a difficult situation. An outsize Fresian cow is causing chaos in the shopping precinct. Francis had thought that this was surely the very kind of job the cowboys would be able to deal with, but they have shown themselves to be incompetent and cowardly, terrified by the sheer scale of the animal. They huddle at the entrance to the pedestrian subway. A British infantryman has taken the extraordinary decision to release a lion into the crowded precinct to capture the cow. His colleagues call for assistance, but everyone knows there is no direct vehicular access to the precinct. It look as if Little Cloud will have to save the day with a well-aimed arrow from his rooftop perch.
I feel like I've meandered a bit in trying to describe this book. From the book description, the book comes across as a bit of a mystery story. Yet I would hesitate to describe it as a mystery (OK ... I'll give it literary mystery) because the story is really more about exploring the nature of loss and how it infuses and affects our lives. Yet at the same time, the book is often very amusing and light. O'Flynn manages to work a whole lot into this gem of a book, but she makes is awfully darn hard to describe what the book is really like. So, I shall simply stop trying.
My Final Recommendation
O'Flynn's second novel combines humor with everyday life with heart-rending examinations into the nature of loss. A difficult book to pin down, I guess I'd simply say that if you like good writing that can amuse you while also making your heart ache, The News Where You Are would be a satisfying read.