Take the whimsy of Inga Simpson’s Mr Wigg (my review here) and multiply it, then add the quirky-character humour of Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project (read, not reviewed here), and you’ve got Lost and Found by debut Australian author Brooke Davis. Exploring the theme of grief and how we deal with it, the story is a romp, told from three perspectives—the young Millie Bird, and the elderly Karl the Touch Typist and Agatha Pantha.
Wearing her favourite red gumboots, red-haired Millie is seven years old and struggling to understand the death of her father when her mother abandons her in a department store. Millie writes all the dead things she sees in her Book of Dead Things. Her dog Rambo is #1 in the book; her father is #28. Like some young children, she is kept away from her dad’s funeral, and is confused about where he has gone.
One of the things she struggles with, and another theme of the novel, is the way adults talk down to her. She asks a lot of questions, as children are apt to do, and the answers she gets are often misleading. In one very humorous exchange with her father when discussing the demise of Rambo, which spills into a discussion about what happens to people after they die, her father talks about Heaven and Hell thus:
In Heaven, you hang out with God and Jimi Hendrix, and you get to eat doughnuts whenever you want. In Hell, you have to, uh … do the Macarena. Forever. To that ‘Grease Megamix’.
Where do you go if you’re good and bad?
What? I don’t know. Ikea?
Millie is a wonderful character. She creates delightful ‘secret’ poems made from snatches of overheard conversation. She lists ‘facts about the world Millie knows for sure’. One of these is ‘everyone knows everything about being born, but no one knows anything about being dead.’ In one scene, she visits a cemetery and realises there are different heavens for different (religious) groups of people and worries she might not go to the same heaven as her dad when she dies. Her habit of telling people they’re going to die doesn’t go over well with most, and culminates in a hilarious announcement she makes over a train’s PA system.
Millie somehow manages to stay overnight in the department store without anyone noticing, except, that is, for Karl who is also sleeping there after leaving the old persons’ home his daughter-in-law effectively put him in. Millie meets Karl in the department store café. Karl is 87, and is missing his late wife, Evie. Karl is particular. He’s in the habit of typing out everything he says with his fingers (he met Evie in a touch-typing school). There are some lovely moments in Karl’s story where he remembers the time he had with his wife before she died of cancer. The way he had proposed to her is wonderful.
Millie still hopes her mum is coming back to get her, and everywhere she goes she puts up a sign, saying ‘In here, Mum’ (which you might see in bookstore windows promoting Davis’s novel). After two nights in the store, Millie and Karl are discovered. Karl is naturally suspected of being a paedophile, but he manages to create a diversion for Millie to escape. She runs back to her home to find her mum has disappeared. The escape scene is one of many hilarious set-pieces, some of which might stretch plausibility but are fabulously entertaining nonetheless. On their break, Millie asks Karl to steal a mannequin, which he subsequently names Manny.
Millie’s return home is noticed by Agatha Pantha, who lives across the street. Agatha has not left her house in seven years, shutting down after the death of her husband, Ron. If Karl is particular, then Agatha is a force of nature, always yelling her displeasure at her perceived failings or shortcomings of people passing by her house. Like Millie, she has her own book to record her ageing, including her flabby arms and other bodily measurements she makes daily.
She has a fixed daily routine, and her chapters are almost diary entries for specific times of the day. She names the chairs she sits in. There are the Chairs of Disbelief, Degustation, Discernment, Resentment, Disappearing, Disappointment, Disengagement, and so on. (It probably would have been better if they were all named using words starting with ‘D’.) At the end of each day, at 9:23 pm, ‘Agatha allows herself to be lonely.’ Davis walks a fine line with Agatha, because she’s not very likeable at first glance, but her personality quirks come from her bewilderment of what life has become. Her loneliness is heart-breaking.
Agatha is aghast when Millie walks up her garden path and asks her to make sense of a piece of paper she has found, which is an itinerary of her mother’s ‘runner’ to the USA via Melbourne (the story begins in south-western Australia). Agatha then tells Millie to go away, but she eventually marches across the street to Millie’s house and tells her to pack her bags because they are going to find her mum.
Thus begins a road trip like few others, with Karl, who has escaped arrest, catching up with Millie and Agatha, bringing with him Manny the mannequin (who I love… #teammanny!). The trio, or should I say foursome!, rub against each other in funny and moving ways as they stay on the run from the authorities and others. Millie’s conversation with Agatha, when she asks if she can start a new family, is a hoot, as the increasingly exasperated Agatha tries to explain that she is too young to start a family and the biological reasons for this and how it all involves the government.
Do things get a little over-the-top? Maybe for some they will, but I enjoyed the majority of the climactic scenes. Millie, Karl and Agatha all transform in satisfying ways, and there is a well-balanced ending, including a nice pay-off from Evie’s puzzled message for Karl that he finally decodes. Out of the grief each of these characters suffer at the open comes a life-affirming message: that while death catches up with us all in the end, until it does we can change in ways that will surprise, perhaps shock, us, and live life to the absolute fullest. If there is a fault, for me some aspects of the relationship between Karl and Agatha strain credibility in an otherwise assured debut.
Lost & Found will win many hearts. Like The Rosie Project, it has been sold into multiple countries and will find many readers. Where does Davis go from here? More whimsy? More humour? Many readers will hope for precisely that.
Brooke Davis has followed in the footsteps of Hannah Kent with a profile on the ABC’s Australian Story titled ‘Driving Miss Davis’, which you may still be able to catch on i-view or on the Australian Story website. She talks about the loss of her mother in a tragic accident, the way people respond to grief, and her rather special relationship with her mother’s old car.
Davis is discussing Lost & Found at Berkelouw Books in Leichhardt with Susan Wyndham this coming Wednesday (16 July) evening. It’s ticketed, so call ahead.
Lost & Found by Brooke Davis
Source: review copy provided by the publisher