Pity the poor comic novel, making its way with slender shoulders through a world where self-seriousness is too often taken as proof of substance.
Immigration, estrangement, and a ruined economy all figure prominently in Catherine O’Flynn’s third novel, but humor is her métier, and “Mr. Lynch’s Holiday” is a charmer, smart and occasionally spooky.
As always, O’Flynn is concerned with the layers and crevasses of the past and how easy it can be to cover over them, to build something shiny and new that anchors itself in the landscape, whether it belongs there or not. What’s hidden beneath — forgotten, ignored, or simply unknown — is what she wants to bring into the light. If that means raising some ghosts, so be it.
O’Flynn put an indelibly drawn child detective at the center of her astonishing debut novel, “What Was Lost.” Here she gives us another utterly winning protagonist: one Dermot Lynch, recent widower, retired bus driver, autodidact, Irishman long ago moved to England. Dermot’s visit to his son, Eamonn, one of Europe’s mobile white-collar workers, is the holiday in question.
The year is 2008, and when Dermot shows up on the southern coast of Spain, he finds his only child living in a contemporary ghost town, one of those places that sprang up so close to the end of the housing boom that most of it sits empty, abandoned by its developers, construction halted partway through.
Feral cats have taken up residence in Lomaverde’s empty swimming pool, and the town’s few human inhabitants are expats, once flush and free, now marooned together in a starkly different financial reality. After a small rash of crimes, they’re feeling on edge.
All of them had arrived “intent on happiness, on living a fairy tale,” one of Eamonn’s neighbors says. “They have not emigrated from places with no work or money to a place with jobs and opportunities. No, they have left comfortable lives in search of somewhere even better. It’s a kind of greed, don’t you think?”
And a fresh start never happens on virgin soil; you’re always trampling on someone’s past, maybe someone’s present, and possibly someone’s sacred ground. Lomaverde, its residents discover, may lie atop a mass grave of Spanish Civil War dead.
Having bought a home there is not the only reason Eamonn is sunk deep in self-loathing gloom, his life a shambles at 33. The woman he loves has just left him, gone back to England, and though he knows he drove her away, he can’t imagine a future without her.
So he is not much in the mood to play host to his capable, blue-collar dad, a source of mortification to him ever since he began to detect class distinctions as a boy. Eamonn had long been more his mother’s child anyway. With her death, their little family’s circle of three has shrunk to two, and these two don’t know each other all that well. They regard each other with some bemusement.
Dermot is a hale and buoyant man; his son is floundering. When Dermot left Ireland for England at 18, he was following the promise of a steady job. When Eamonn left England for Spain in his early 30s, he was seeking to become a better version of himself. But they both left the place they knew to start over in another country; they have more in common than they think.
“Mr. Lynch’s Holiday” is about finding one’s life, finding one’s home, finding one’s family. It’s also about never fully knowing the people we love most, and about the pain that follows if we let them slip away, perhaps through nothing more than negligence.
“I think sometimes you lose people and you barely know it at the time,” Dermot says. “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. How much you lost.”Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at laura.collinshughes