Someone hands you a slim paperback with a nondescript blue cover. “This book is about aging, death, and transcendentalism — where do we belong? What are we doing here? Are we making an impact?” they begin. “It’s also about grief and loss, and how that can affect a person deeply. And about family — the people we love who don’t always love us back. Not in the right way, at least.
“It’s about making a mark on the world and looking beyond the here-and-now. It’s about what matters. It’s somber, melancholy and reflective. Not necessarily uplifting. So . . . want to give it a read?”
If that had been how I’d come to possess Catherine O’Flynn’s The News Where You Are, let me tell you — I would never have reached for a copy. As a general rule, I try to stay away from novels dealing with grief and loss; there’s enough sadness in the world without me having to read about it in my off hours. (You know, I work at a newspaper. Death is par for the course.) I like my reading upbeat and philosophical, but I can tolerate somberness from time to time . . . as long as it serves a purpose.
Books that are depressing just for the sake of “art” — for the sake of being depressing? You know, not so much. I have enough on my mind.
But let me tell you, friends: if I hadn’t cracked open the spine of O’Flynn’s stunning book, it would have been a terrible misfortune. It took me months to finally settle into the nooks and crannies of this engrossing story, but once I did? There was no letting go.
Frank Allcroft is a middle-aged television reporter for Heart Of England Reports, a British news program. Content with life alongside his loving wife, Andrea, and their young daughter Mo, Frank enjoys his work but can’t shake an endless nagging at the back of his head: the guilt he feels over his mother, Maureen, depressed and living in a senior facility. Frank’s father, a renowned architect, constructed many buildings in Birmingham prior to his death — but slowly, one by one, the city is now tearing them down.
Left only with a bitterly unhappy mom and sinking beneath the weight of his father’s long-past inattention, Frank develops a morbid obsession with the subjects of many of his news items: locals who died alone, only to be discovered days — or weeks — after their passing by the odd passerby. Saddened that anyone should reach the end of life in solitary confinement, Frank makes it his mission to attend the funerals of these people — a pastime that bothers Andrea.
It’s one such death that hits him more deeply than most: that of Michael Church, a man he immediately recognizes in a photo because of his large, piercing blue eyes. He turns out to be the childhood friend of Phil Smethway, legendary local TV personality and Frank’s predecessor on Heart Of England Reports. Phil died mysteriously — and not that recently. A victim of a hit-and-run. Michael was found dead, cold and alone on a park bench. And Frank is beginning to wonder if there may somehow be a connection.
Though it took me about twenty pages to get hooked on The News Where You Are, I had a tough time setting the book down after that. Frank was a lovable hero: serious, but not dryly so; a man who took his obligations seriously and dearly loved his family; a good friend, employee, husband and father. Centering around Frank and his attempts to unravel the life (and death) of Phil and his father, he’s someone who immediately endeared himself to me. Prone to melancholy but desperately trying to fight it — and I could relate to that.
The novel’s strength really comes from its dark humor — O’Flynn’s ability to create comical characters like Cyril, a barely-working writer who supplies Frank with his famously corny on-air “jokes” (he pays a pound or two for each), and Walter, a fellow resident at Frank’s mother’s retirement home who won’t let Maureen’s bad moods dissuade him from befriending her. Sprinkled in is that trademark British sense of humor, which perfectly balances out the somber subject matter. A few one-liners actually had me giggling.
More than anything, though, I’m walking away from this one with a greater understanding of what it means for something to be permanent — and what we leave behind as our legacy. Frank is obsessed with the fact that his father’s Birmingham is being torn down and replaced by “modern” buildings. Talking about Michael Church, Frank says:
. . . When you go back and scratch at the surface you find the people who knew him and who he’d meant something to or who he impacted in some way. He left traces. Then at the other extreme there are people like my father who leave behind this very tangible, physical legacy. Concrete proof that he existed, but if all his buildings went, what traces of him would remain?
O’Flynn’s insights into life and death were thought-provoking and very affecting, and I may or may not have been the woman sitting in Panera crying into her tomato soup right before I finished the novel.
I could go on and on about this one, but I’ll wrap it up: a moving, memorable novel about family, friendship and what we leave behind. Read it for the lyrical writing and unexpected levity; finish it for the mystery and complex, realistic and endearing characters.
4.75 out of 5!