Way, ways back when I had just started this blog and hadn't really decided what to do with it and I reviewed Catherine O'Flynn's debut novel 'What Was Lost'. It plainly made an impact because her name remained in the forefront of my mind as a writer I wanted to read again. She came to speak at the literature festival this year and was totally enchanting, just such a lovely normal unpretentious person. A hardback copy of her most recent offering, 'Mr Lynch's Holiday' was my one purchase of the festival, which she very kindly signed for me. She made me feel as if I could be capable of writing, that anyone could, that you don't have to have some kind of magical creative quality to write a novel. She wasn't one of those people who had written stories compulsively since early childhood, she had just upped one day when they moved to Spain and decided, since she had time on her hands, that she would write.
Her first book is set in Birmingham and this one, her third, has Eamonn, who has escaped Birmingham for the sunny shores of a modern development in Spain, and his father, Dermot, a retired bus driver comes out for a surprise visit - at least it's a surprise to Eamonn because the letter arrives so late he doesn't get much warning. Besides he's having problems of his own because his girlfriend Laura has 'gone home to think' and his job is going rapidly down the toilet. What we have here is two men who have never really talked to each other at the best of times. Kathleen, the wife and mother, was the person who held the family together, and now she's gone, and their relationship has been left in a kind of limbo. The book hops back and forth between their two perspectives as they wander rather aimlessly around the hot Spanish countryside, and spend some time with the various expat residents of the neglected development. People bought the houses in a rush of enthusiasm for a new life, only to find themselves abandoned and trapped, unable to sell up, the last few houses lie unfinished, the swimming pool had sprung a leak and feral cats are taking over. It doesn't sound a promising story but with flashbacks to childhood (of both characters) and the slow breaking down of barriers between them we are given a lovely portrait of a father/son relationship, with Dermot, finally getting to the bottom of his son's malaise, coming up with a neat solution to the situation.
I think however that Inga, a divorcee from Sweden, manages to capture rather neatly the atmosphere of Lomaverde. Everyone came, she argues searching for 'happiness', that elusive thing to make life better, here she explains to Dermot why she is glad that the place is not some kind of paradise and why she stays:
" 'The point is, no one would want to admit to their disappointment, it would be something shameful, something hidden. Imagine living in such a place? Where failure or regret or despair are inappropriate, where such feelings are not allowed, don't fit with the blue skies and the sunshine. I would have lasted six weeks.' She exhaled a long plume of smoke. 'But that isn't how it worked out. Instead Lomaverde is a failed dream. Do you know the word for it in Spanish?'
He shook his head.
'Ciudad fantasma - a ghost town. It sounds beautiful, don't you think? It is a melancholy place, crumbling at the edges, and I find that I love it. It's a place where you can admit to mistakes, you have no choice but to. I think the lack of people makes it more human.' She paused. 'Is that mad?' " (p.155)
Dermot has his own little secret too however, regrets about his marriage and how happy he may or may not have made Kathleen. He makes this lovely, poignant little speech that pretty much gets to the core of what happens when people spend a lifetime together:
"You know, you can always tell the married couples on the bus. They're the ones not speaking to each other. Everyone else chats, but the husbands and wives sit in silence. It makes you wonder: are they silent because they know each other's minds and there's no need for words? Or are they silent because they're imagining conversations with other people? Or is one doing one and the other doing the other? Two different silences side by side?" (p.241)
Not a startling or unsettling book, more the kind you close with a satisfied sigh that maybe the world will be okay after all.