This odd little novel is deceptively simple, ten-year-old Kate Meaney, a self-styled investigator, really nothing more than a solitary little girl who fills the long hours with her surveillance of “suspects”, as dedicated to her work as any professional. After the death of her father, Kate pursues her private passion, her trusty sidekick, Mickey the Monkey, stuffed in her bag, watching for “criminals” in disguise, spending long afternoons in 1987 UK with Adrian Palmer, a twenty-two-year-old who works in her father’s shop in the local mall, Green Oaks.
Adrian is Kate’s only friend, the one in whom she confides when her grandmother makes arrangements for her to begin boarding school. Loath to take the looming entrance exams at Redspoon, a reluctant Kate is escorted by Adrian to the examinations. When Kate goes missing, Adrian is the last person to see her alive. Police suspicion too much for the sensitive young man to bear, Adrian runs away, cementing the authorities’ belief that he is the culprit.
Nearly twenty years later, Green Oaks is still the hub of local activity, a community dependent upon the center for the employment of locals and the relief of endemic boredom. Adrian’s sister, Lisa Palmer, works at Your Music, living with a man she hardly sees - another employee of the music store - anxiously awaiting the yearly music CD mix sent by her brother on her birthdays.
Walking the dark corridors meant for mall employees, Lisa finds Kate’s stuffed monkey. Near the same time, night-shift security guard Kurt notices a child on a security tape, a little girl who might be Kate. Through happenstance and fate, Lisa and Kurt begin a tentative relationship based on their search for the answer to Kate’s fate. Trapped by habit and the wrong choices, Lisa and Kurt are drawn together in common purpose, albeit with secrets that must be revealed for the relationship to succeed.
With a diverse cast of disillusioned characters, O’Flynn creates an intricate plot, part mystery, part sad testament a world grown ever more isolated, a casual melding of strangers who wander Green Oaks with minimal communication, frustrated with the difficulties in their lives. Each of these characters suffers personal disappointment, hidden wounds and ineffective relationships.
Although the novel takes place in the UK, it could be anywhere, people scurrying from shop to shop in a brief respite from their lives. Kate would have filled her notebooks with observations of this rich assortment, husbands and wives, disaffected lovers, the slow-moving cogs of a bureaucratic mentality that isolates the future in facile jargon. As the stories intersect, the mystery of Kate’s disappearance is solved, the bright curiosity of a lonely girl but one facet of a society in search of contentment, if only temporary. As perfectly balanced as a house of cards, O’Flynn assembles a delicate structure where disappointment and loss are mitigated by hope.