“Millie’s dog, Rambo, was her Very First Dead Thing”.
When Millie Bird turns seven she finds things start to die. Struggling to make sense of this she records each dead thing in her notebook. “Soon she noticed everything was dying around her. Bugs and oranges and Christmas trees and houses and mail-boxes and train rides and markers and candles and old people and young people and people in between”. Her next new dead thing takes up multiple pages; it is her dad. This moment changes her life and that of her mother who struggling with her grief takes Millie to a department store one morning. Telling her to wait in the women’s underwear section Millie makes camp and waits for her Mum to return. Eventually it becomes apparent that she has been abandoned. Millie, with her bright curly hair and matching red gumboots, is not one to sit back quietly and she draws up a plan to find her mum for herself. In doing she runs into a world full of strange people and even stranger rules but she is not alone. For her great adventure she is accompanied by a couple of surprising companions.
Octogenarian Karl has lived a long and relatively calm, content life with his great love Evie. They lived quietly, dreaming up adventures. “But they never did any of those things, because they said a lot but didn’t do a lot, and they were both okay with that”. After her death he is alone and feels similarly abandoned and frustrated. When he finds himself displaced and in a home he decides to change this. Now is the time to be brave and to undertake all of the challenges that he and Evie thought of but did not see into action. This is how he also ends up camping out in the department store, where each day he sits in the same seat with his coffee, and at night tucks himself away in the changing room. A chance encounter with Millie sets him on a new path in which he starts doing rather than just remembering.
Rounding off the trio is the unusual and stubborn Agatha Pantha. When her husband dies she finds her home invaded by well-meaning neighbours who have taken over and are imposing their own process of mourning on her. One day, when looking at her husband’s slippers, which sit where he left them under the bed she cracks. Forcing everyone out of her home she throws their food into the driveway and shuts herself away. She does not leave the house for the next seven years. When Karl first saw Agatha’s house and heard her story he said “it was like looking at the inside of his guts in the form of a house. Dark and dying, it had waved its white flag long ago”. Her only social interaction is shouting at people as they pass by her window and writing complaint letters, until one day Millie Bird turns up on her doorstep with nowhere to go and no one to look after her. Will Agatha walk out of her front door and into a new life?
Although Millie is the novel’s star each chapter is headed by one of three characters: Millie Bird, Karl the Touch Typist and Agatha Pantha. They novel is broken into short chunks that are easily devoured and keeps up the pace. If anything Lost and Found grows in speed and immediacy throughout and the use of the third person keeps things fresh and interesting.
Lost and Found taps into that wonderful staple of children’s literature of turning an abandonment into an adventure. One of the benefits of a child protagonist is that they approach the world differently. Millie thinks nothing of going up to a stranger to share his food and talk about death. When Karl picks up a companion, a plastic shop mannequin called Manny, it becomes a natural part of the group. However those looking in from the outside see it differently. Adults seem to instantly assume he must be a sex doll. It is as if all innocence has been lost and only through Millie, and their shared grief, can Karl and Agatha recapture some of the honesty that has been missing from their lives.
The unlikely trio undertake a western Australian road trip with the implausible aim of finding Millie’s mum before she leaves Australia. At every stop Millie leaves the message: “I’m here Mum”. This quirky, unusual read sees our heroes come face to face with authority, with adults always trying to limit and control them as they battle against the tide to start living the things they now only remember or dream about. Grief is also made up of regret. As your internal landscape changes it becomes clear that the things that you did and had together are now relegated to your memory and the pain of all of the things that could have been are unlived regrets. The adults they encounter on their adventure all seem to share the same trait: a refusal to face up to death. This trap is something that both Karl and Agatha have fallen into, until faced with their own grief they rebel against all that society expects of them.
When I tried to tell someone what this book was about they said it sounded sad but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Davis writing ability and the one of a kind characters she has conjured make this an uplifting and beautiful novel. The way in which Millie faces the absurd is funny and touching in equal measure.
Lost and Found is a marvellous, idiosyncratic novel that addresses how we learn to our lives fully when you cannot get away from the ever present reality of death. As Agatha cries “How do you get old without letting sadness become everything?”. This exceptional novel is Davis’ first feature length piece of fiction and leaves one waiting with anticipation for her next. It is a story of grief that brings together three extraordinary characters in the journey of a lifetime.
Brooke Davis, Lost and Found, (Hutchinson, London, 2015). ISBN 9780091959128. 289pp., Paperback