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Mr Lynch’s Holiday, by Catherine O’Flynn, Viking, RRP£14.99, 272 pages
Dermot Lynch has decided to take his first trip abroad, to visit his son Eamonn in Lomaverde, a Spanish town so new it is not yet on the map. The recently widowed Dermot soon discovers that Lomaverde is not only new but was never finished. At the edge of the town, an abandoned building site and the shells of six houses tell their own story of the stagnant Spanish economy, developers that went bust and foreigners who invested all their money in a place in the sun, only to find themselves stranded.
Catherine O’Flynn specialises in loss: her debut What Was Lost (2007), which won the Costa First Novel Award, was about a girl who goes missing in a shopping centre and the people who try to find her. Her second book, The News Where You Are (2010), opened with a death. In Mr Lynch’s Holiday the deaths are several: the death of Dermot’s wife, Kathleen, which prompts his trip to Spain; the death of Eamonn’s relationship with his girlfriend, Laura; and the death of Lomaverde itself, which “had rather simply failed to take off”.
The gleaming white houses look “somehow scientific in purpose, a collection of laboratories or observatories perhaps”; it is a petri-dish of a place where each household tells a different story.
Becca and Ian are the “innocent victims of a fairy tale” – in particular, the fairy tale of making money renovating and reselling properties. Jean and David are retired book-keepers from Hampshire who fall asleep watching their grandchildren in England via Skype. Roger and Cheryl are glamorous fiftysomethings who “needed the presence of spectators in order to be able to function”. Only Inga, a Swede who came to Lomaverde after her marriage collapsed, has reconciled herself to its fate. “It’s a place where you can admit to mistakes, you have no choice but to,” she tells Dermot.
Eamonn, however, cannot admit the mistakes he made that led to his break-up. He rarely comes out of his room. His kitchen cupboards contain only a jar of gherkins and a tin of grapes. “I didn’t even know you could get grapes in a tin,” Dermot says, quietly shocked. Eamonn keeps telling himself he will return to teaching English as a foreign language but instead sends Laura long emails begging her to come back to Spain.
Dermot does his best to help. As an Irishman who emigrated to Birmingham, he experienced racism during The Troubles but his struggle was very different to Eamonn’s, a middle-class Englishman who abandoned a comfortable life in London to move to Spain. The differences between father and son – the distance travelled in one generation – give O’Flynn her best lines: “The English middle classes, like Emperor Penguins, Dermot knew only from the television.”
Of the myriad characters and subplots that circle Eamonn’s story, the plight of the illegal African immigrants, some of whom wash up dead on a nearby beach, is never fully explored. They are shadows hiding in derelict buildings, good only for spooking the snotty European residents. But when she gets to the details, O’Flynn writes terrifically about disappointment and denial, skipping easily between the present and moments in Eamonn and Dermot’s past that explain how they became who they are.
Mr Lynch’s Holiday excels in exploring the strangeness of being the outsider and the stories people tell themselves to survive.