July 2010

Liz Fischer

fiction

The News Where You Are by Catherine O'Flynn

The unspectacular, oddball world of local news makes excellent fodder for wry observations on modern life in the capable hands of Catherine O’Flynn, whose second novel, The News Where You Are, chronicles the life of a middle-aged British newscaster.  

Through the eyes of Frank Allcroft, life in Birmingham looks bleak. He commutes to town from a planned suburban community where he and his wife, Andrea, made the misguided decision to raise their daughter Mo, now eight. At work he presents an endless rotation of uninspired stories about street crimes, silly contests, and amazing pets, and he’s valued most for the forced, stale jokes that have made him a surprise hit among college students. Around town, the legacy of Frank’s late father, a distant, impersonal architect, is being threatened by a slow and steady line of demolitions, until only one building remains. These themes could easily become depressing, and the mood of the book tends toward gray, but O’Flynn has the impressive ability to treat heavy subjects with humor and grace.  

One of the most interesting elements of the book is Frank’s job as a news anchor and his professional persona. Contrary to type, Frank is a minor celebrity who is content with minor celebrity. Rather than seek exposure and greater platforms he takes his job seriously and values it for the service it provides the community and for documenting not only the goings on about town but also the lives of individuals. Frank is so taken with the humanity of strangers that it pains him to report on or read about people who have died without friends or family, only to be discovered days later still sitting upright in their armchairs. He cannot let a death go unnoticed, and develops a somewhat morbid hobby of bringing flowers to such funerals or helping the state track down a next of kin.  

Frank’s professional life is put into perspective by the recent death of his predecessor and mentor, Phil Smethway. Phil was effortlessly charismatic, driven, and sometimes painfully vain, and went on to host national television shows. Through both Frank’s interactions with his old friend and chapters written from Phil’s perspective, it’s clear that Phil’s greater status is accompanied by deep insecurity and a fleeting sense of self. In one scene, he replays an old clip of the local news in which his younger self smiles at his co-anchor and then turns to the camera. “The simple combination of ease, grace and timing in those few seconds captures something he feels he has lost forever. He watches it over and over again as if repeated viewing will bring it back to him, but he knows it is not something he can relearn.”  

O’Flynn has a great gift for character. Frank’s mother, Maureen, is fascinating in her aversion to family. She has limited patience with her granddaughter, and discourages Frank’s weekly visits to her nursing home, which she entered at an early age and in relatively good health. Maureen seems to wallow in her own depression and self-imposed dejected state, and conceals moments of happiness from her son. At one point Frank walks into Maureen’s room to find her asleep with the paper on her lap, before she is startled awake: 

"Oh!" She always smiled when woken by her own snores. A mixture of embarrassment and humor. It seemed to Frank like a glimpse of her true self, before the veil of melancholy was drawn up again. 

Frank’s father was so consumed with his work as an architect that he essentially neglected his wife and son. And it follows that two cold and impersonal parents would raise a son so urgently drawn to the human. One of Frank’s illuminating characteristics is his practice of showing up fifteen minutes early. Usually considered a courtesy, Frank finds that as a celebrity, his promptness is unsettling to others, who expect to be kept waiting. Still though, he can’t break the habit. “He spent much of his life killing small blocks of time,” O’Flynn writes. “It was a consequence of his punctuality.” 

The author’s only fault may be that her juxtapositions are too tidy (Phil was superficial, Frank sentimental; Frank is concerned with commemorating the past, while his father was preoccupied with building the future), and that she feels compelled to help the reader see them: “I’ve been wondering recently why I wanted to try to save this building. What would it matter if all his buildings disappeared?” Franks asks, then answers in a convenient thematic summary.  

The News Where You Are is a quick and engaging read all the way through, but the narrative picks up in the second half of the book as Frank begins to investigate suspicious circumstances surrounding Phil’s death. Thus the book begins to read like a mystery, and an interesting one at that. This plot structure lends the narrative focus, speed, and a satisfying frame, but to O’Flynn’s credit, the novel could stand on her keen observations and elegant writing alone.  

The News Where You Are by Catherine O’Flynn
Holt
ISBN: 0805091807
272 Pages