Land of the lost

Fiction: For her fourth novel in two years, Cecelia Ahern has chosen a challenging theme: the lack of personal identity for …

Fiction: For her fourth novel in two years, Cecelia Ahern has chosen a challenging theme: the lack of personal identity for non-famous nobodies in a celebrity-focused world. Each of us, famous or not, forms an identity by recounting - to ourselves or to a willing listener - an internal narrative of our own particular life.

The existential problem faced by Ahern's protagonist, an abnormally tall young woman named Sandy Shortt, is that she has no narrative. The very fact that she is extremely tall and lacking in social skills has made her unnoticeable to those around her because she doesn't fit into the communal narrative - or collective unconscious - of what an attractive, interesting young woman should be.

Sandy's childhood nemesis, by contrast, enjoys a splendid narrative because she disappeared as a child and has, in that way, become a celebrity. She exists more by not existing than she ever would have in flesh and blood. The friend, Jenny-May Butler, the little girl from across the road who was rotten to Sandy, becomes a missing person at the age of 10. Her story, told via the red-top tabloids, makes her a celebrity/saint and inspires Sandy to devote her life to obsessively finding lost things and lost people. This makes sense because the slightly strange Sandy wants to find the part of herself she has lost - a personal narrative - and this search forms the substance of the novel. Here Ahern is onto a really important contemporary theme; rudderlessness in a world where no one has value unless they have a story that runs well on the airwaves.

Sandy enters the surreal world of the "lost", a utopia that Ahern depicts as the politically correct, environmentally aware version of a Disney fairy scene. Though set in contemporary Dublin there are echoes of traditional Irish fairy folklore here too. In the "place called here", where the missing live, there is no poverty and the inhabitants enjoy the comfort of belonging - as long as no one asks the crucial questions: where did I come from, what am I doing here, and how do I get back? Ahern's portrayal of being lost is too cute, especially when, 20 years after Dublin schoolboy Philip Cairns's disappearance, his parents are still looking for him, like many other families in the same position.


The plot is a bit scatty, too, with the many flashbacks preventing the narrative from moving forward.

Interviewed on Ryan Tubridy's radio programme, Ahern spoke not of writing, but of "options" and two-line proposals that could be strung out to 200 episodes. This is the soundbite world of today - a kind of celebrity fairy-world where young authors considered to be in touch with the zeitgeist are feted like rock stars - but one senses that there may be more to Ahern and her writing than this.

A major theme in Ahern's books is loss and the craving for a father/lover figure. It seems reasonable to speculate that as a child she may have considered herself a nobody while her father was swept up in celebrity in the shape of politics. This is a great theme that maybe she'll write about one day.

Ahern is a truly postmodern girl who watches a lot of TV - preferably in box-set episodes watched back to back late into the night with her boyfriend. This novel shows how she has effortlessly absorbed and re-made philosophical concepts as varied, or similar, as Beckettian existentialism and the TV series Lost as young people do when exposed to all the contemporary world has to offer - but she has not worked her ideas through enough. Her intriguing concept of loss in A Place Called Here lacks the mature and insightful realisation it could have had. She's now an international bestselling author with fans worldwide. One hopes that she'll be given the time, space and encouragement to develop fully as a writer.

Kate Holmquist's novel, The Glass Room, was published earlier this year by Penguin Ireland

A Place Called Here By Cecelia Ahern Harper Collins, 389pp. £11.99

Kate Holmquist

Kate Holmquist

The late Kate Holmquist was an Irish Times journalist