Tag Archives: British ex-pats

Mr Lynch’s Holiday: Catherine O’Flynn

Given my interest in books that send characters off on holiday, it was easy for me to pick up and read Catherine O’Flynn’s Mr Lynch’s Holiday. The title encapsulates the action perfectly, and yet it also gives the impression of a very light beach read, but there’s a lot more going on in these pages than the title implies. While most of the action concerns a group of ex-pats, post boom, who’ve committed financial suicide by electing to pursue a fantasy of life in Spain, this is essentially a story about compromise and how we make the best of what we have.

Dermot Lynch, a 76-year-old retired bus driver, hails from Birmingham but was originally from Ireland. Now widowed, he arrives in Spain for a fortnight to visit his son, Eamonn, who decided, along with his long-term girlfriend, Laura, to abandon the UK and telecommute from Spain. And why not? Property values were soaring, and there was a sense of everyone stepping into a new exulted societal status, so it seemed easy for Eamonn and Laura to take the plunge and move to Spain.

Their original plan had been for one of the big cities–Barcelona or Madrid or Bilbao. They had no interest in joining the hordes of expats clustered along the Costas in vast apartment complexes and chintzy hillside developments. Eamonn saw the majority of British settlers in Spain as an amorphous mass of Daily Express readers riddled with hypocrisy: railing against benefit cheats at home while happy to avoid Spanish tax; indignant at immigration levels in the UK but oblivious to their own immigrant status. These were people for whom Spain’s greatest cultural achievement was its tireless dedication to polished floors and gleaming kitchen worktops.

Things didn’t go as planned:

They spent a depressing two weeks in Barcelona, looking at a succession of tiny apartments with increasingly inventive layouts. Mildewed shower cubicles in the corner of bedrooms, toilets on balconies, a mezzanine bed platform suspended above the kitchen, and everywhere perky Ikea accents to mask the squalor.

When dreams or elaborate plans don’t pan out, many people have a way of hammering their dreams to fit reality–ignoring the clear warning signs that the dream is impossible and should be abandoned. And that’s exactly what happens here; Eamonn and Laura can’t afford Madrid or Barcelona and so instead buy one of the completed homes in a new, remote housing development:

The houses and apartments were described as minimalist cube structures with a nod to the principles and aesthetics of Bauhaus. Lomaverde claimed to offer all of the style and sophistication of city living but without the bureaucratic wranglings and complexity. Where Barcelona had been difficult and impenetrable, Lomaverde was easy and welcoming.

So here we are years later; Lomaverde is an unfinished ghost estate inhabited by a group of stubborn ex-pats who either won’t give up or who now cannot afford to return home. The community pool is empty and cracked, the post isn’t delivered regularly, and a road leading out of the estate ends suddenly, unfinished, dropping off into the harsh landscape. Eamonn and Laura both lost their jobs and Laura has returned to the UK.

mr lynchs holidayVisiting the deeply depressed Eamonn becomes a rescue mission for his father, and perhaps not too surprisingly, Dermot mingles well with the other ex-pats on the estate even though his son has withdrawn from everyone’s society and is wallowing in self-pity. Dermot is a great character, and as the plot continues we see glimpses of a young Dermot arriving in Birmingham, his history and some of his disappointments in life. The most balanced, socially conscious character in the book is Inga, a divorcee from Sweden who is strangely happy that Lomaverde failed:

“I came here expecting the same as everyone else. A new community, a fresh start in this beautiful place.” She lit another cigarette. “My marriage was over. Thirty years of trying to turn a blind eye, of thinking my husband would change. That felt like a mistake, a terrible waste of time. I thought I could come here and lose myself in a new place.

But imagine somewhere in which everyone is like that. So intent on happiness, on living a fairytale. They have not emigrated from places with no work and no 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 if you’d have said that to me two years ago, I’d have said. ‘So what? why not be greedy for happiness? what’s wrong with that?’ “

Eamonn was always closer to his mother and dismissive of his father. With Dermot’s visit, he now learns things he never knew about. While I enjoyed Mr Lynch’s Holiday and I wouldn’t hesitate to read another book from this author, it does have IMO, two flaws: 1) the character of Eamonn is too weak. He’s so weak that he’s a complete disaster–from the inappropriate things he says to one of his internet ESL students to his drunken gropings of a fellow resident. No wonder Laura ran for the hills. 2) The ending regarding Eamonn is sewn up too ‘nicely’ and while Dermot’s decision makes sense, what happens with Eamonn is supposed to be a happy ending but in reality just opens the doors to more disaster.

Author Catherine O’Flynn is very generous and well-disposed towards her characters, so consequently there are no villains here. While one of the British ex-pats is an ethnocentric bore, most of the other people are just trying to take a day at a time and make the best of things in this bad situation.

There’s one great scene when the residents hold a homeowners’ meeting, and its formality is in direct inverse proportion to the chaos of the estate. One very poignant, very realistic scene focuses on grandparents who watch their grandchildren back in the UK via Skype. These sessions conclude with either the grandparents falling asleep or the grandchildren wandering off, forgetting that they have a live audience. The grandparents moved to Spain telling themselves that their grandchildren would be able to visit and have free accommodation, but with the children’s father unemployed, those planned holidays never come to fruition, and since Lomaverde is riddled with places up for sale (at savagely reduced prices), the grandparents are stuck and cannot return to the UK.

I closed the book, a gentle pleasant read, and contrasted it to Pascal Garnier’s Moon in a Dead Eye which is set in an estate with residents who’ve fled the city for a variety of reasons. Garnier, in his trademark way, is pitiless with his bourgeois characters who mostly live in a state of constant paranoia and fear that outsiders might break in. In Mr Lynch’s Holiday, the same theme occurs, but it’s handled in a gentler, much more generous way that’s slightly unbelievable, but that attitude may depend on how you see basic human nature.



Filed under Fiction, O'Flynn Catherine

Death in the Dordogne by Louis Sanders

“In the Dordogne, but particularly in La Berthonie, the horizon is never far away and yet everything is always miles from everything else, which is how the region preserves its charm and which is also how it can become a prison in winter if you don’t have any cows to milk, any pigs to fatten or any chickens to slaughter. So the English who live in the Dordogne meet up in their informal clubs to do all sorts of things, but, more often than not, nothing in particular, while–as soon as six o’clock has struck–they quaff great quantities of all sorts of things alcoholic.”

Death in the Dordogne is the first in a series of mystery novels written by Louis Sanders concerning British ex-pats living in France. When I heard about these books, published by Serpent’s Tail, I knew that chances were I’d really enjoy them. I just finished Death in the Dordogne and I’m hooked.

The novel begins with a funeral of a French villager attended by the narrator, a British ex-pat, a Londoner who cashed in on the real estate bubble, and who now lives in the Dordogne and is considered the “newly installed Englishman.” He tries to “wriggle out” of the funeral, but he’s pressed into attending. Like many British ex-pats, he’s drawn to the fantasies and ideas of life in the French countryside and is shocked and disgruntled by the realities. The realities include freezing temperatures in an ancient house bought when his judgement was colored by romanticism, and images of a farmer’s wife who rather disgustingly stuffs ducks with food in order to make and sell foie gras. The narrator is just one of eight residents in the village of La Berthonie–a village that at one time boasted a population of 200, but this number has slowly dwindled down to the die-hard residents.

Perhaps the narrator just has too much time on his hands, but he begins to be bothered about the details of the death of Gaston, the strapping young man who met his supposedly accidental death while chopping wood in the forest. The funeral is a reminder in many ways that life (and death) in the bucolic village is real and not picture postcard perfect, but still overall the narrator “preferred to think back to the history books about the French peasantry in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries.” These books were largely responsible for his mistaken notions about life in the French countryside.

When the narrator discovers that Gaston’s brother died under peculiar circumstances years earlier, this just provides fodder to the notion that there’s something odd about Gaston’s death. He speculates that Gaston was “killed to alleviate the boredom–if only momentarily–the boredom that hangs over these Dordogne evenings.” While he doesn’t exactly begin investigating, he does begin connecting with some of his more anti-social French neighbors, and this proves to be a big mistake.

Author Louis Sanders captures the ex-pat ambience to perfection. The other British outcasts patch together various social evenings–the dubious highlights of life for the British in the Dordogne, but for the most part, the narrator’s days are spent wondering if it’s too early to break open the alcohol. The narrator confesses to the reader that he “contemplate[s] with horror the few metres that lie between the fire and my favourite drink, a distance I will have to travel in the nightmarish cold in order to pour myself another drink. There isn’t any central heating; when I bought the house I still tended to confuse the downright uncomfortable with the picturesque.”

Largely oblivious to the fact he’s homesick for London, it finally begins to dawn on him that he is ultimately a stranger and an outcast, and that’s not likely to change. There’s one very funny moment when he realizes that the locals peg the other British ex-pats as a bit loony, and this is illustrated by the labels they are given. Then he realizes that he probably has a label too, and he admits to himself: “I was doing what I’d always wanted to do, which was, in a word: nothing.” But at the same time he wonders: “what am earth am I doing here?”

Death in the Dordogne is marvelously entertaining and slyly funny. The novel’s protagonist has just the right touch of pathetic sleaziness–from his endless evenings murky with alcohol to his cheesy attempts to ramp up his British eccentricities in a desperate attempt to impress and bed a French girl. In some ways the novel has the feel of a British cosy mystery–nothing too threatening, nothing too violent and the story is after all set in a village. But in this case the village is French, and murder is the trigger that leads the narrator to realize that he’s a ‘stranger in a strange land.’

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Filed under Sanders, Louis