In my novel, Mr Lynch's Holiday, Eamonn Lynch has left England for a new life in Spain. Eighteen months on, however, his dream of a fresh start in the sun has disintegrated. Eamonn is a victim of the property crash, living in a newly-built, yet crumbling Spanish ghost town, his girlfriend gone, his days empty, his nights long and increasingly fearful. The novel begins with the unexpected arrival of his elderly father Dermot. Eamonn is entirely baffled by his father's sudden decision to travel abroad and is uncheered by the prospect of two weeks in his company.
Dermot himself was once an immigrant—having moved from his native Ireland to England as a young man. But despite their shared experience of migration, what made me want to write about these characters was the gulf between them. Sometimes the gap between one generation and the next can seem particularly wide. This is often the case with older parents, but also sometimes with immigrant parents and their children, too. Dermot and Eamonn's reasons for migration, their expectations of life, their perception of their own places in the world couldn't be more different and I found myself intrigued by their obvious differences, their hidden similarities and their mutual misunderstanding.
It's a relationship I recognise to some extent. I was the 'unexpected' sixth of my parents' children, born ten years after my siblings. My father was almost 50 when I was born and both he and my mother had emigrated from Ireland. So whilst my Dad grew up in the rural Ireland of the 1920s and 30s, I grew up in the post-industrial English Midlands of the 1970s and 80s. It's no wonder that at times we found each other entirely perplexing. What really was he supposed to make of my teenage penchant for spiking my badly bleached hair and wearing his old pyjama tops out to parties?
But Dermot is not my father and I am not Eamonn and perhaps that is one reason I chose to make this about a father and a son, rather than a father and a daughter or indeed a mother and a daughter. I often steal historical details or situations from my past without any desire to write a novelisation of my own life. What I wanted to do with this novel was to describe a very basic, very archetypal situation: a strong parent rescuing a weak child, but it seemed more interesting if the parent was elderly and the 'child' a man in his 30s. It seemed entirely feasible, given their characters, that Dermot would and could do this for Eamonn, but it also shone a kind of slanted light on notions of strength and masculinity.
Perhaps blithely, I didn't find the idea of writing about a father and son daunting. Gender is really not a significant consideration for me when I come to write. I feel perfectly comfortable writing male characters, which isn't to say that I think I write male characters well, but rather that I don't think the success or failure of my characters rests upon their gender. I rarely recognise nuggets of received wisdom about the differences between men and women and whoever I choose to write about inevitably has characteristics that don't conform to those stereotypes, not because I'm trying to be contrary or challenging—but just to write characters that I believe.
Eamonn is a character I recognise very well. He has grown up in a very different world to that of his parents and he is ill at ease in both—a classic self-hating member of the middle class. He is embarrassed by the things his parents say, criticising them for non-PC remarks, but can't help squirming, too, at the smugness of the liberal, educated bourgeoisie. He saves his greatest contempt for himself, for the way in which he analyses and construes everything and finds invisible tripwires everywhere. He is a man in his mid 30s with no practical skills at all, unable to hang a door or change a tyre. He is in many respects a ridiculous figure.
Typical of most children, Eamonn has grown up entirely incurious about his parents. Dermot is quiet, capable, and completely at ease with himself and others, qualities that Eamonn has spent most of his life failing to value or even really see. He is blandly aware of his father's strength but not the vulnerabilities that thread through it.
The novel begins with Eamonn noticing a distant figure on the horizon. As the blurred silhouette draws closer, Eamonn eventually recognises the stranger as his father—emerging mirage-like from the heat haze. When I was writing the novel, I found it hard to get past that initial scene, I kept re-working it and revisiting it, somehow reluctant to move on and find out what happened next. It was maddening and frustrating, but now as I look back I wonder if the reason I became so stuck is because in some ways that one scene encapsulated the whole story: the slow drift of a father from a blurred, barely visible shape on the horizon to the very centre of his son's life.