Catherine O’Flynn’s first novel, What Was Lost, attracted substantial critical and prize attention — winner of the Costa First Novel Award and longlisted for both the Booker and Orange Prizes. While I don’t think her second novel will get quite that much jury attention (it is a bit thin on the literary side of things), it is a highly enjoyable read and I am sure it will do well on the sales front. O’Flynn hits on all of the checklist above — if you are looking for a book for the cottage or beach (or even just an entertaining break, as I was) this one succeeds.
The main character, Frank Allcroft, is a television news anchor on Heart of England Reports, one of those regional news shows that every country seems to have but which almost nobody watches. Amend that; we have all seen a version of this dreadful show. Actually, let’s deal with the show first:
Sometimes Frank would see a film, usually American, set in and around a newsroom. He struggled to find any parallels with his own work environment. The journalists were always either hard-bitten cynics or wide-eyed idealists — never the kind of shuffling unspectacular plodders that he felt himself and many of his colleagues to be. Their patter was fast and littered with one-liners, not the directionless drivel that passed between him and the others on slow afternoons as they asked each other about their sandwich fillings. Their Hollywood counterparts drank black coffee, never milky tea, ate Danish pastries, never Penguin biscuits, and they never seemed to cover stories about controversial new traffic-calming measures.
While the story meetings for Heart of England Reports are delightful set pieces, the most interesting part of Frank’s dreadful work experience is his relationship with his predecessor, Phil Smeadway: “Phil had some kind of televisual gold dust — viewers loved him; there had been something in his DNA that seemed to make him affable to everyone. He’d long ago moved on from regional to national television and from news to entertainment. He had been hosting a prime-time blockbuster show every Saturday night when he was killed in a hit-and-run accident six months previously.”
No points are awarded for spotting the dramatic foreshadowing in the last sentence of that quote and no spoilers will be forthcoming here. One thing that Phil has “bequeathed” to Frank, however, is Cyril. He is a gag writer who wrote the corny jokes that Phil made a nightly staple. (And you are going to have to read the book to get any of the jokes — there is a limit to just how much can be given away in a blog review.) Cyril is eager to perform the same service for Frank and, despite the anchor’s leaden delivery, the gags actually, kind of, work:
Shortly after he started inserting the occasional joke, Frank’s producer discovered through a friend of his son’s that Frank was developing a cult status among students in the city — the bad jokes were actually pulling in more viewers. Eventually a Web site was dedicated to him — http://www.unfunniestmanongodsearth.com — with clips of Frank delivering his more excruciating one-liners.
That’s enough of the work stuff — O’Flynn certainly has more to offer. Frank is the son of an architect who was responsible for eight of those concrete behemoths that anyone who ever visited Birmingham in the last half of the 20th century will know only too well. The good news is that seven have already been demolished (such is the fate of the carbunkles that Prince Charles loves to deride) and Frank will engage in a project to preserve the last vestige of his father’s work.
And finally there is Frank’s own family. His mother, Maureen, has been installed at Evergreen Senior Living in the Helping Hands section, as opposed to the Golden Days (“inevitably referred to by residents as Gaga Days”) section. If you happen to be of an age where your parents are living in places like this, there are some excellent riffs on this subject as well.
And Frank has a perceptive eight-year-old daughter, Mo, who gets more than a few good appearances in the book.
Given all that — plus the fact that I am avoiding the spoiler that drives the latter part of the book — you have to admit that there is a lot to recommend this novel from the entertainment point of view. Keep your expectations low (this is cottage reading after all) and you will find a most entertaining cast of pleasantly hapless characters who keep you amused from start to finish. No, it is not a prize winner, but what more can you ask from a summer read? I was impressed enough that I will be heading back to O’Flynn’s previous novel in the future — books like this deserve more attention than they generally receive.
A final note for Canadian readers: The News Where You Are is a Bond Street Book, one of Random House Canada’s imprints. The volumes that they produce (check them out here) would get my vote for the best physical volumes that are being published today in any country. It is wonderful that at least one section of the trade remains committed to producing volumes of such wonderful quality. I know I shouldn’t like a book because of its cover, let alone its production, but every Bond Street Book that I pick up has a special appeal.
For another take on this book, check out Will Rycroft at Just William’s Luck — he and I are very much on the same page with this one.