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July 14, 2010

The News Where You Are by Catherine O’Flynn

Catherine O’Flynn’s two books have been imperfect novels packed solid with goodness. The News Where You Are, like her first novel What Was Lost, chronicles contemporary life in the English Midlands, its bleak dose of “All the lonely people, where do they all come from?” nicely countered with humour, pop culture references, and an underlying faith in the human spirit. Her characters are vividly realized, their dialogue sharp, and the settings evoked with perfect detail. The plots and subplots are absorbing, both novels a pleasure to read, and so in the end all is forgiven even when they don’t quite work as wholes.

At the centre of The News Where You Are is Frank Allcroft, who serves less as a character than as an anchor for the various strands O’Flynn is weaving here– anchor fittingly, because Frank is a local news anchor, O’Flynn depicting the details and minutiae of his job in fascinating detail, and also showing him reflecting on the changing media scene, questioning the place for folksy local in a fast-paced globalized world; Phil Smethway, his old friend and mentor has died six months previously in a mysterious hit and run; Frank is finally beginning to admit to himself how much his mother’s unhappiness has always affected him, and he is also trying to reconcile his feelings regarding his architect father, whose buildings have one-by-one been demolished since his death; Frank makes a point of attending funerals of those whose lonely deaths he reports, and then one of these people turns out to be connected to Phil…

(Frank’s frosty co-anchor, responding to one of his famous corny jokes, asks him, “What the hell am I supposed to do? If I laugh, I look as if I’m mentally ill. If I don’t laugh, I look as if I hate you.” I can’t find another place to fit this in, but I want to repeat it because it’s funny, because it’s a dynamic I’ve never considered, and though a lesser author would make the co-presenter simply hateful and hating, O’Flynn opts more for the more interesting angle. Her characters are always surprising).

It sounds like a hodgepodge, but it isn’t, and in the end the whole thing comes together more effectively than What Was Lost. Too much is going on for this to be a masterful novel, but its strands are all compelling and they comprise the stuff of this world in a way that’s both familiar and surprising. Also a bit shamelessly heartwarming–though its premise(s) are sad, O’Flynn injects enough humour, enough pointed observation about the absurdity of everyday life, and provides Frank with a wonderful family whose solidity is never questioned. Without overdoing it then, O’Flynn gets the bleakness of contemporary England, the centuries of histories underneath the feet, which makes the recent past almost seem disposable, and how “the future” is now something looked back upon with nostalgia. What was lost and what remains.

One thought on “The News Where You Are by Catherine O’Flynn”

  1. I absolutely loved What Was Lost; if it wasn’t perfect, I didn’t notice! It was Harriet the Spy for grown-ups, for me, and the only part that I didn’t like was the part that O’Flynn couldn’t have changed.

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