Mr. Lynch's Holiday

Catherine Flynn's wry, touching, third novel follows a widower who visits his son in Spain, only to find that the boy's supposedly glamorous expat life is anything but.

Mr. Lynch's Holiday, by Catherine Flynn, Holt, Henry & Company, 272 pages

After decades as a bus driver in Birmingham, Dermot Lynch is taking his first overseas trip in Catherine Flynn’s third, utterly charming novel, Mr. Lynch’s Holiday.

The newly retired widower chooses Spain, not for the sunshine, but to visit his only child, Eamonn, who was supposed to be living a sophisticated expatriate life with his wife. Instead, the busman’s holiday turns out to be just-in-the-nick-of-time rescue.

Dermot arrives, on foot, to find that Eamonn’s wife, Laura, is gone. Eamonn tells his father it's just for a few days because he's ashamed to admit she has left him and returned to England. In her absence, Eamonn is barely functional – sleeping past noon, playing computer chess, and ignoring his online English students as the shoddily built new condo crumbles around him.

In fact, the only beings thriving in Lomaverde are the feral cats, whose numbers increase by the day.

“Because Lomaverde was not in decline, because it had rather simply failed to take off, its death was more difficult to perceive. Awareness of its failure to thrive was slow and incremental, similar to Eamonn and Laura’s own gradual realization, four months after arriving, that the pool was emptying,” O’Flynn writes. For the first few days neither of them mentioned it, each assuming they were imagining it. But as the water level continued to sink, there was no room for doubt … It took an age for the pool to empty completely, the water seeping slowly through a tiny crack. It was peculiarly painful to watch.”

O’Flynn’s first novel, “What Was Lost,” won the 2007 Costa First Novel Award and was long-listed for both the Booker and Orange prizes.

Her third novel is altogether lovely without ever turning sentimental. O’Flynn is wry on the subject of capitalism, the expatriate life, and the resoundingly popped housing bubble, the echo of which seems to have permanently deafened any number of characters, preventing them from hearing just how self-centered and self-pitying they’ve become.

The novel’s emotional center is the gentle, increasingly worried Dermot, who charms the handful of other residents in Lomaverde, a closed community united by economic failure and paranoia. There have been burglaries, protests from the families of unpaid construction workers, and other oddities, which are magnified by the development’s isolated location in Spain’s hilly, hot scrublands. (“Impressive mountain views,” the brochure promised optimistically.) Dermot, a tower of strength and practicality who thinks nothing of strolling four miles to the grocery store when Eamonn’s car doesn’t work, is befuddled at the state he finds his son.

“Kathleen always said Eamonn had been graced with brains, not brawn, but Dermot couldn’t see that it took much brawn to put a line of sealant around a bath, nor any evidence of brains in not doing so. There was scant furniture, and what there was seemed placed without any particular thought or care,” he thinks. “It felt a makeshift rather than a welcoming place, the desire to leave evident in every corner.”

Eamonn was going to be the literary novelist, but Laura is the one who actually writes a book, much to his resentment and self-loathing. Actually, self-loathing has now become a perpetual state for Eamonn, who thought that the big move would give him a chance to reinvent himself, only to discover that he can’t stand who he’s become.

While some critics have wondered how any child could have ever become estranged from Dermot, O’Flynn covers this in the plot. And, given his father’s sheer size and strength, coupled with his lack of formal education, it’s easy to see how Eamonn would be simultaneously ashamed and afraid he doesn’t measure up.

“It seemed to him that the key achievement of his education had been to alienate him from both the people he had mixed with as a child and the people he went on to mix with as an adult. In both worlds, he felt adrift, bobbing erratically between feelings of inadequacy and loathing,” Eamonn thinks.

“Mr. Lynch’s Holiday,” also jumps back in time to Dermot’s introduction to England, when he moved to Birmingham from Ireland and met Kathleen. Their marriage was a long one, but not necessarily a happy one.

“Dermot studied the backs of his hands. ‘I always loved her.’ He placed them flat on his knees. ‘But I’ve been less lonely since she’s gone.”

That empty, cracked infinity pool also serves as the chief metaphor for the novel.

“I think sometimes you lose people and you barely know it at the time. It starts as a small crack. That’s all it is. It takes years, a lifetime, before you notice what went out through the crack,” Dermot tells a character about the younger brother he was separated from as a teenager.

Fortunately, as O’Flynn shows, Dermot is just the man for a repair job.

Yvonne Zipp is the Monitor's fiction critic.

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